CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The FBI is investigating at least two Charlotte taxicab companies that billed the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services millions of dollars for transporting clients, sources tell the WCNC-TV I-team.
At the same time documents in a federal civil lawsuit reveal several drivers at one of the companies billed taxpayers for trips they did not make.
The Mecklenburg Department of Social Services paid more than $7 million for taxicab service in 2009 alone, according to a spreadsheet DSS provided to the I-Team under the state s Open Records Act.
To read the Mecklenburg County DSS Transportation statement click here.
The spreadsheet shows that most of that money went for transporting clients from home to healthcare providers under the Medicaid program.
The two cab companies made up about two-thirds of the DSS billing in 2009, Crown Cab and AA Prestige Taxicab, which billed $5.2 million.
Now sworn testimony and documents made public in a federal civil lawsuit between Crown Cab and its insurance company, Travelers Indemnity, reveal multiple drivers at Crown billed taxpayers for trips they did not make.
In a sworn deposition taken on January 14, 2011, former Crown General Manager Bhanu Contractor was asked if he recalled drivers who were ...essentially defrauding DSS...? His answer: Yes.
Another Crown supervisor, Jeffrey Hinkelman, testified in his January 11 deposition, There was (sic) some drivers that had built up some serious falsifications to the DSS that a couple of them I believe got suspended for for falsifying their the work that they claimed they had done.
In a letter dated February 9, 2010 attached as an exhibit in the civil case, Bhanu Contractor wrote to a third driver documenting 63 trips for one DSS client and 20 trips for a second client that ...you did not do.
Mecklenburg DSS Director Mary Wilson issued a statement through a County spokesman saying the agency had only detected one instance of fraud involving taxicabs in the last four years. Wilson s statement says DSS has adopted multiple checks to detect fraud and to train employees to look for red flags.
Crown Cab Vice-President Mayur Khandelwal serves on Charlotte s taxicab licensing board, called the Passenger Vehicle for Hire or PVH board, alongside former Crown General Manager Bhanu Contractor.
Khandelwal said, Anytime there was in incident (of drivers billing for rides they did not give), we were proactive with DSS to pursue remedies. When asked how often such instances occurred, Khandalwal replied, You hope these things are isolated.
To read a statement from Vice-President Mayur Khandelwal click here.
But in the case of the driver who billed for 83 cab rides she never made, according to the letter from Bhanu Contractor, the company merely suspended the driver for a week and asked her to pay the money back, plus a DSS fine of $50 for each instance. Crown Cab even set up a kind of installment plan for the driver to repay the company in $150 increments, according to the letter.
Knowledgeable sources tell the I-Team the FBI is now investigating Crown Cab and AA Prestige Taxicab on North Tryon Street. AA Prestige billed $2.6 million in 2009, almost as much as Crown. The I-Team called and visited AA Prestige to speak to its operator, Zebene Mesele, but he did not return repeated calls.
Crown Cab lost its contract with DSS last year. The agency contends the company turned in its bid just minutes after the deadline. Crown is now suing DSS in state court over the decision.
After much criticism, DSS has sharply reduced the amount it pays for taxicab service for its clients and is instead relying much more on CATS for public transportation.
In another controversial public contract, a committee at the Charlotte Douglas Airport including airport director Jerry Orr is recommending Crown Cab as one of three taxicab companies serving the airport. That contract is already the subject of multiple lawsuits.