Consultant for light rail pleaded guilty to fraud after lavish spending in Arizona job

In this Nov 20, 2015 file photo from the Arizona Republic, Valley Metro CEO Stephen Banta speaks about his business at the Valley Metro Phoenix offices.
In this Nov 20, 2015 file photo from the Arizona Republic, Valley Metro CEO Stephen Banta speaks about his business at the Valley Metro Phoenix offices. The Arizona Republic

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is using a consultant who earlier this year pleaded guilty to fraud related to thousands of dollars in personal travel, meals and alcohol while he was a transportation official in Arizona.

Consultant Stephen Banta took a plea bargain in September, pleading guilty to one felony count of fraudulent schemes and practices, The Arizona Republic reported. This month, Banta was punished with two years of unsupervised probation and a $6,000 fine.

John Tallmadge, the interim light-rail project manager for GoTriangle, said the agency knew about Banta’s charges when he was hired as a subcontractor.

Banta’s role as rail operations manager is to make sure “as the light rail is being designed, we are not only considering the constructability but how can it be operated in an efficient manner,” Tallmadge said.

“I think this is a non-issue, not related to any of the work he’s doing for us,” Tallmadge added. He dismissed it as “gossip.”

GoTriangle spokeswoman Burgetta Wheeler said late Thursday that GoTriangle has no direct contract with Banta. However, she provided information from light-rail contractor HNTB about Banta’s contract with that company.

Banta has been working on an as-needed basis since Jan. 10, 2017, at a rate of $231.75 an hour, she said. His contract is worth up to $443,457, and he has completed most of the work, which could end in the coming months, she said.

Banta, who runs an independent transit consulting firm, directed questions about his status to GoTriangle officials when reached by phone Thursday. He is a subcontractor with an “architectural engineering firm,” offering rail system operations input, Banta said.

“Providing rail expertise to the startup of their potential GoTriangle light-rail line,” he said. “I’m not an employee of GoTriangle. This is helping to guide the program and the development of it.”

Banta was chief executive of Valley Metro in Phoenix in 2015 when an Arizona Republic investigation found what the newspaper called “extravagant personal spending with public funds” while leading the regional transit system.

The Associated Press reported that Arizona’s Office of the Auditor General released a report showing that Banta “claimed that $32,000 in personal travel, meal and alcohol costs for him and his wife were expenses related to his work.”

Banta ran Phoenix’s bus and light-rail systems for six years and was paid an annual salary of $264,493, The Arizona Republic reported. He also received $141,000 in bonuses before he resigned in 2015, the newspaper reported.

On Wednesday, Tallmadge said GoTriangle “looked into both the charges against him and the case, and we immediately made sure that anything related to the charges that were coming through to us for his travel and other expenses were reviewed, and found them all to be consistent with our requirements and practices that are standards for all the other consultants.”

“We felt assured he is not in a position that any of those issues that occurred in Valley Metro were relevant to us,” Tallmadge said.

He added that there is a “fairly small universe of experts” that have the expertise Banta has in rail operations.

Chapel Hill resident James Valentine was at a GoTriangle meeting this week about the planned rail operations and maintenance facility on Farrington Road. Banta was introduced at the meeting.

Valentine said that he and others, who oppose the rail maintenance yard location, researched Banta during the meeting and saw the newspaper stories about Valley Metro.

“Holy cow, this is what our taxpayer money is going to,” Valentine said.

Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said on Thursday that she just heard about Banta the day before. She said it’s her understanding that he’s not in a position to be a liability. She added that she thinks he is an asset to the light-rail project.

“He’s not in a position for that to happen again,” Jacobs said, and deserves a second chance. She is a member of the GoTriangle Board of Directors.

“Durham is very committed to re-entry and giving people second chances, as a community, but obviously we do want to be careful about protecting ourselves,” Jacobs said. “He has no access to funds.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said Wednesday night she was unaware of Banta’s background.

Durham County Commissioner Heidi Carter said Thursday that she also had not heard about Banta.

“I’m concerned enough [that] I’d like to know more about it,” Carter said.

Council member Michael Parker, a member of the GoTriangle board, said he also had not heard the news and did not want to comment without more information.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.