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BART board votes to partially approves state oversight bill

PIX Now -- Friday afternoon headlines from the KPIX newsroom
PIX Now -- Friday afternoon headlines from the KPIX newsroom 09:39

OAKLAND - BART's governing board voted unanimously Thursday to partially support legislation that would bolster the powers of the agency's office that oversees internal audits and investigations.

Senate Bill 827, authored by Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, would expand the authority of BART's Office of the Inspector General by allowing it to access all records, documents, accounts, reports, communication or other property of BART or its third-party contractors. 

The bill, as currently written, would also make it a misdemeanor crime to obstruct an investigation or audit by the OIG, punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

The BART Board of Directors voted to support the bill in an effort to bring further clarity to the OIG's role within the transit agency.
As part of its vote, the board also called for the removal of the bill's criminal penalties over concerns about criminalization.

"(BART officials) understand a misdemeanor may provide an enforcement mechanism for the OIG to compel compliance by BART employees and contractors," said Amanda Cruz, the transit agency's director of government and community relations. "However, there are concerns as to whether a criminal penalty is the appropriate approach."

Assistant Inspector General Claudette Biemeret noted that some other internal investigative offices at agencies such as Caltrans have similar criminal penalties for failing to cooperate, but Caltrans has never had to enforce those penalties since they were enacted. 

"It has served really well to just be a deterrent, which is what they hoped," Biemeret said Thursday to the BART Board of Directors.
Glazer introduced SB 827 in February after years of friction between BART management and former Inspector General Harriet Richardson, who opted to resign March 17, months ahead of the end of her term in August.

Richardson, as well as independent investigators, have argued that BART leadership has repeatedly obstructed the OIG's investigative efforts since she was appointed to lead the office in 2019.

A 2022 report from the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury found that the OIG "is significantly underfunded and unable to fulfill its mission of uncovering waste, fraud and abuse."

The report also noted that the size of BART's OIG is minute compared to those at similar transit agencies in Los Angeles, which has nearly 25 employees in its inspector general's office, and Washington, D.C., which has nearly 45 employees.

BART's OIG, meanwhile, included just three staff members before Richardson's resignation.

Richardson and Glazer held a news conference on March 17 with BART board directors Debora Allen and Liz Ames to both chastise BART management and call for stronger oversight of a transit agency they argued is irresponsible with public funding.

"They come now to the Legislature and say, 'we need the money, we're going off a financial cliff.' And I say to BART, 'let's take a look at your resume and see how you're doing'," Glazer said, noting that BART has yet to complete major projects like modernizing its fleet of train cars and installing new fare gates that would make it harder for riders to evade paying to use BART.

Thursday's vote does not have any legal effect on how the bill could change going forward. BART board members have argued that the scope of the OIG's power has been unclear since its creation.

They've also largely said they are amenable to giving the inspector general more authority to investigate the transit agency, more funding and potentially even giving the office subpoena power.

State lawmakers are set to discuss SB 827 at the Senate Transportation Committee on April 11.  

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