‘A public trust issue.’ Durham-Orange Light Rail consultant who took plea deal is out

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

GoTriangle has dropped a former transit executive who pleaded guilty to fraud in Arizona as a consultant on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

“It was a public-trust issue,” said Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs, who serves on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.

The proposed $2.47 billion light-rail project would connect Chapel Hill and Durham with up to 19 stops along 17.7 miles. It is in the design and engineering phase, with federal funding not yet secured.

The Herald-Sun and News & Observer reported last week that Stephen Banta, a subcontractor for the light-rail project, took a plea deal and served no jail time for fraud while leading Valley Metro, the Phoenix, Arizona, area transit system. Banta took the plea in September and was fined and sentenced to unsupervised probation earlier this month, The Arizona Republic reported.

When asked about Banta’s criminal record last week, John Tallmadge, interim director of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, dismissed it as “gossip” and said GoTriangle knew about Banta’s charges.

In an email this week from GoTriangle, board members were told Banta had since been dropped from the project.

“You have likely seen the news coverage concerning a consultant on the light-rail project, Stephen Banta,” the email stated. “In September, Mr. Banta pleaded guilty to one felony count of fraudulent schemes and practices related to a travel expense investigation when he was employed at Valley Metro in Phoenix three years ago. While as a part time sub-consultant to HNTB, Mr. Banta did not have a direct contract with GoTriangle, and there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Mr. Banta while working on the project, we believe it is important to ensure public trust. To that end, Mr. Banta is no longer working on the light-rail project.”

Jacobs said she did not know about Banta’s record until it became public last week. She said then that Durham was committed to re-entry and giving people second chances.

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

Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said he was surprised to find out about Banta’s record.

“Well, we have ‘ban the box,’” Middleton said Wednesday, referring to a policy in in which people applying for vity jobs do not have to check a box on their application asking if they have a criminal record.

On Wednesday, Jacobs said Banta’s “position was such that he had no direct access to funds” and that there are hundreds of government subcontractors that she doesn’t micromanage.

Middleton learned of Banta’s dismissal during a conversation with a reporter and Jacobs on Wednesday.

He agreed that it was a public trust issue.

“The optics of it suck, but folk want to know, ‘Did this impact us?’ and the answer is ‘no,’” Middleton said.

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