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Florida/Tri-County News

Suwannee Valley TA – $13.9 Million in Funding Since 2009: Who Was Watching the Store?

Posted January 20, 2015  10:50 am | Part I | Part II
Updated January 28, 2015*

COLUMBIA - HAMILTON - SUWANNEE COUNTY, FL – The saga of the Suwannee Valley TA continued this past Friday as two Commissioners from each of the three counties met for the second time to come up with an answer to the Florida DOT's OIG (Office of the Investigator General) Report (the Report). After an hour of conversation the commissioners agreed to plead nolo contendere and accept the report and its findings unopposed with an answer which represented a mini Corrective Action Plan. But first: Who's Who? What's What? Who was watching the store?

Since 2009 the Florida DOT, through the Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged, has allocated more than $13.9 million to the SVTA. (pg 9 of the Report.)

The OIG Report generally covers June 2012 through March 2014.  (pg. 1 of the Report)  It skips over August 2011, the time of the hiring of Administrator Gwen Pra, and what went on at the SVTA for 10 months after that. The Report also ignores what went on before Administrator Gwen Pra was hired. (Ms. Pra's engagement letter is in the Report at pg. 61). Nowhere in the Report does it state that Ms. Pra came from and was trained by FL DOT.

Only the briefest references are made to 2011, and those are the starting salaries of Administrator Pra and the salary and lack of a background check regarding the hiring of Operations Director, William "Bill" Steele, who was hired by Ms. Pra.

CDT: Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged

More SVTA articles

The Commission for the Transportation Disadvantaged (CTD) works under the FL DOT. Its stated mission is, "Ensuring the coordination of transportation for Florida's most vulnerable people." According to the CTD, "The finance team develops and reviews policies and procedures used to detect and prevent financial shortfalls, fraud, and abuse."


Gwen Pra, a 5th generation Florida native, was the Administrator hired after long time SVTA CEO Jimmy Swisher retired. In 1997, Ms. Pra joined the Public Transportation Office of the FL DOT where she worked with the district's 18 counties as the Rural Transportation Coordinator. On August 15, 2011, Ms. Pra became the new Administrator of the SVTA. She mentioned many times that the debt; training; administration; and financial issues began long before she took over the helm at the SVTA. What she knew about the spiraling debt and what she passed on to the DOT, if anything, is unknown.

Early in her career at the SVTA, your reporter asked Ms. Pra why she didn't notice the deteriorating conditions at the SVTA while she was at DOT. She said that she had 18 counties to watch over and that she couldn't be "expected to know every detail."

Sandra Collins has been the FL DOT's representative on the Local Coordinating Board (LCB). Ms. Collin's job description is here. It is unknown if she had ever raised any red flags to the DOT as the SVTA spiraled into debt and what some have called disarray. Gwen Pra, who was hired as the SVTA Administrator under questionable circumstances, was the FL DOT's alternate member on the LCB.

Long and short time members of the LCB, and this reporter, cannot remember any contribution of DOT's Collins at a public meeting, other than her articulated feelings about being recorded during those meetings, wherein she wanted it announced if anyone was recording her.

The Report (pg. 9) shows an "SVTA Organizational Structure" giving the "Department" one vote on the SVTA Board of Directors. No mention is made regarding this Board member. The DOT is presumed to be the Department. Other than at one meeting a few years ago, no one can remember the DOT showing up at any SVTA Board meeting.

North Central Florida Regional Planning Council

The North Central Florida Regional Planning Council is the designated official planning agency for the FL DOT. It "coordinates transportation planning at the local level and assists the Commission" in carrying out Transportation for the Disadvantaged services. (pg. 6 of the Report).

The Planning Council, through the Local Coordinating Board (LCB), among other things, makes recommendations to SVTA. It is not clear what the Planning Council knew about the worsening financial conditions at the SVTA; the numerous complaints after Ms. Pra took over; and what went on at the SVTA before Mr. Swisher retired.

For its assistance to Columbia, Hamilton, and Suwannee Counties it received in the 4th quarter of 2014: $14,688*. It is unknown if the NCFRPC ever raised any red flags to the DOT as the SVTA spiraled into debt and what some have called disarray.

Columbia County Commissioner: Ronald Williams

Columbia County, County Commissioner Ronald Williams had been the Chairman of the SVTA Board "for as long as anybody could remember." Over the course of approximately 30 years, SVTA board members came and went, but Commissioner Williams remained a fixture.

Recently replaced, it was reported to the Observer that he was a "regular" at the SVTA Hdq. in Live Oak and it is widely believed that nothing happened without his knowledge or approval. According to a former employee, he knew of the spiraling debt directly from the past administrator, Jimmy Swisher, and told Mr. Swisher, he would "take care of it."

James Moore & Company: Auditors

James Moore & Company was the SVTA's outside auditors through the audit of FY 2011. By the time June of 2012 rolled around, the SVTA owed its auditor $47,013.

Moore & Co. was trying to acquire a bunch of items to complete its audit. A June 6, 2012 email to Administrator Pra and Operations Manager Steele listed items such as: "some type of approval for the $5,000 bonus to Mary Katherine; minutes from meetings; support for all of the comp time paid to Gwen; support for sample of 25 disbursements... vendor invoices cannot be located."

A state of financial emergency

In 2004, the SVTA was determined to be in a state of financial emergency, as defined by the Florida Statues (§ 201.503(3)). It is not clear when the SVTA was released from the state of emergency, although it appears that it was sometime around 2011, the same time the SVTA was racking up millions in debt; couldn't pay its bills; and was screwing (extorting) owner/operators, private contractors that worked for the SVTA, out of tens of thousands of dollars.

The financial state of emergency was never mentioned at any Columbia County Commission meeting. It's doubtful that the residents in Hamilton or Suwannee Counties had a clue.

Tomorrow: the CAP: comments by the SVTA Board and the SVTA attorney.

*NCFRPC rate corrected

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