State Auditor Brian Sonntag (

Of course, virtually all of our major news outlets think it’s major scandal, need to know information, when a Sound Transit error causes costs less than 0.01 percent of their budget.

Yet curiously, their interest in the details of agency management falls away when yet another state audit reveals the agency is fully compliant with state law, and has adequate internal controls (pdf):

The Transit Authority complied with state laws and regulations and its own policies and procedures in the areas we examined. Internal controls were adequate to safeguard public assets.

In response to a whistleblower report, the Auditor also checked out $164,000 in other possibly improper payments to local nonprofits.  The auditor found that $8,050 of that was actually improper, of which $3,200 was spent after ST received a warning from the auditor.

Guess the headline in the Times today?  I know that this is the way the media works, and I’m glad the whistleblower filed his complaint and forced an end to illegal expenditures.  At the same time, when public perception is skewed by this kind of selective reporting, it doesn’t help voters make intelligent decisions about the agency.

While we’re on the subject of governance, four ST projects received local engineering awards.  They don’t sound like a big deal, but they’re better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

23 Replies to “Sound Transit Management, Good and Bad”

  1. Finally, an article that tells whole truth about Sound Transit rather than only 0.01 percent of it:

    “The Transit Authority complied with state laws and regulations and its own policies and procedures in the areas we examined. Internal controls were adequate to safeguard public assets.”

  2. I would bet a dollar that the audit itself cost more than the total ‘waste’ found in the Sound Transit budget.

  3. “Since 1999, the Transit Authority has made annual membership dues payments to one of the
    nonprofit organizations totaling $156,000. These expenditures are within the Transit Authority’s
    authority since the nonprofit organization conducts events to educate people on transportation
    choices, including mass transit, which are related to the Transit Authority’s programs.”

    Am I the only one that finds this a bit troubling? $156,000 in “memberships” to non-profits and the only criteria is that the organization “conducts events to educate on transportation choices”.

    I’ve been a member of several non-profits and dues are typically less than $50 a year. Let’s see, 10 years so $15,600 per year. That’s hundreds of memberships per year or is it just a few “patrons” memberships? This sounds a lot more like a loop-hole allowing political contributions to groups that lobby for ST than memberships in organizations that educate on transportation choices.

    1. Rereading this I’m even more troubled with the part, “annual membership dues payments to one nonprofit.” Who’s getting that $15,600 membership every year? Is this organization really serving the entire region equitably as required by law based on sub area taxes collected?

      1. So according to the Times article the Golden Boy for ST is Transportation Choices. Seems to me a lot more information on how to vote than which bus to get on. The contribution (I mean “membership”) may have been legal but that doesn’t make it ethical. And even if a choice is ethical a lack of disclosure boarders on criminal. If funds are available for “education” shouldn’t ST make that public and solicit memberships from other organizations based on their efforts to “educate” the public?

      2. Bernie, read the complaint. It’s not the memberships the Auditor has concerns with. In fact, the Auditor specifically states memberships are appropriate:

        “These expenditures are within the Transit Authority’s

        In order to criticize something effectively, it’s better to understand it, first.

    2. “I’ve been a member of several non-profits and dues are typically less than $50 a year.”

      Dues calculations for individuals are different from dues calculations for organizations and agencies. I’m surprised you didn’t figure that out on your own.

  4. “I know that this is the way the media works, and I’m glad the whistleblower filed his complaint and forced an end to illegal expenditures”

    One problem: from what I can tell, they weren’t “illegal.” That’s the spin KIRO put on the story, and the PI and Times followed suit. The Auditor is not a lawyer, and he does not employ lawyers. Sound Transit does employ a legal counsel, and that legal counsel stated it was within ST’s authority to engage in these types of sponsorships.

    What’s really going on here is simple to figure out. The WPC is a right wing, anti-transit and anti-environmental think tank. When they found out ST and these enviro groups were working together, Mike Ennis filed a complaint. The Auditor doesn’t hear from people that often, so even the most fringe elements of the political spectrum get Sonntag’s full attention.

    The Auditor obviously does not like public agencies sponsoring non-profit organizations, thanks to some very questionable expenditures made by the Port of Seattle in 2006. Notice how this writer does not engage in Larry Lange/Mike Lindblom-style sensationalism, and doesn’t pretend to claim the Port’s actions were “illegal”:

    The port could not “demonstrate the appropriateness of certain expenditures, made inappropriate expenditures and paid vendors in advance of receiving services” totaling $504,258

  5. You can see why the State Auditor is sensitive to this issue, reading further down that pi story:

    Another example of inappropriate accounting outlined by the state audit was when the port donated $300,000 to a group called the Seattle Organizing Committee to bring a sub-Olympic event to the region called the Pacific Rim Sports Summit. Port Chief Executive Mic Dinsmore was a member of the committee, which was forced to cancel the event in April but could not reimburse the port for its donation.

    The port also made two $9,000 payments, classified as membership dues and fees, to the King County Housing Alliance in 2004 at the request of the group’s vice chairwoman, Paige Miller, who was also a port commissioner at the time. The port received no services for those payments, either, Cortines said.

    The group, also known as the Housing Partnership, serves as a forum to explore affordable housing solutions. The port made annual contributions but fell behind on its payment.

    In an e-mail included in the auditor’s working papers, Miller reminded port staff in January 2004 to cut the check, because the “Partnership’s budget is on a shoestring and our contribution is really important to avoiding a significant deficit for last year.”

  6. Oh, how funny.

    The PI changed its original internet headline from “Sound Transit spent funds illegally” to “Sound Transit spent funds illicitly.”

  7. Jason,
    I do understand the report and find it most disturbing that Sound Transit can legally buy memberships in any non-profit it seems fit under the cloak of “education”. I did spend a fair deal of time looking at Transportation Choices website. I didn’t see an real information that tells people how to take advantage of their current transportation choices. Plain and simple they are a lobbyist group in Olympia. They’re quit clear about that. As you point out, illegal and inappropriate are two different things. I’m concerned that $156,000 of tax payer money is being used inappropriately.

    Sound Transit’s lawyers say it’s not illegal. Of course they do. Blagojevich’s lawyers say he didn’t do anything illegal either. The State Auditor reviews the accounting practices. One of the mandates of the office is to look for waste. I think it’s incumbent on Sound Transit to justify the use of the money not to just employ a legal team that let’s them exploit loop-holes like the the difference between “membership” and “sponsorship”.

  8. Not only is there nothing illegal about the linkage between ST and TCC, there’s nothing unethical about it whatsoever. Every single piece in the Sound Transit project history has been subjected to political choice by the electorate. The opposition consists of advocates with immense private funding and resources, and the local media’s ear. Sound Transit is forbidden by law from engaging in the same type of advocacy through a ban on politicing, despite these projects being their entire reason for being. So they take membership in a non-profit that is well-situated to meet the opposition, and fortunately for the electorate, provide a realistic counterpoint to all the usual “we just can’t afford it” bullshit.

    Bernie, if you’re so worried about $160k of taxpayer money, I urge you to take a look at the defense or agriculture elements of the Federal budget, line-by-line item and I’m sure you’ll find 1000’s of worse abuses than ST’s membership fees in TCC. Sheesh.

  9. tres,
    You are correct in pointing out that by law Sound Transit is forbidden from engaging in the political advocacy which TCC does. It doesn’t matter what side of the issue it comes down on or how well the opposition is funded. But take a look at the sponsors for todays TCC Friday Forum:

    Platinum level: Vulcan Inc.

    Gold level: CH2M Hill | The Boeing Company | HDR Inc.

    Silver level: Jacobs and Associates | Bricklin Newman Dold | HNTB Corporation | IBI Group | Christian Sinderman | Parsons Brinckerhoff

    All of these are companies stand to make or save millions based on development decisions and construction contracts. So your arguement that the donation (damn, I mean membership) is justified because they are supporting an alternate view that would otherwise not be aware of doesn’t wash.

    Your second justification is other agencies waste more so don’t worry about it. We’re not talking about taking a pen home from the office here. If State tax money was going to an organization supporting goals you disagree with you’d be incensed. Is there a dollar amount where it’s OK to knowingly misappropiate funds?

    1. Bernie,

      If you have questions about how we use Sound Transit dues, you are welcome to contact us at Transportation Choices for clarification. Just for the record we are independently audited and our auditor confirms that Sound Transit dues for ONLY for education. We are careful to track and allocate our expenses for our advocacy and education programs.

      Also you state that we are primarily a lobbying group. FYI our lobbying expenses in 2007 were 18 – 20 percent percent of our overall budget. Our 2008 expenses on lobbying were around the same. Not exactly the BULK of our work really.

      As for our education work, just because our website doesn’t mention this in detail, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. An email or phonec all to us would have given you more information on our education programs. Let me talk a little more about those programs here. Our education work includes our Transportation 101 program (workshops that we hold for businesses, academic institutions, community groups and individuals), participation in community events (we attend 50+ events per year), plus distribution of our educational booklet 27 Reasons. All these programs cover a range of transportation choices and options for that are tailored for the group or the individual.

      Hope this helps inform the discussion.


      1. Shefali,

        First let me be clear that I am not in anyway attacking Transportation Choices. The State Audit shows that the books are in order. Some of their positions I support, some I don’t. My objection is to ST spending tax dollars to support a politically active organization; which by law they are not supposed to do.

        Accounting tricks aside, the report that they chose to fund a single non profit when there are so many attempting to get information to the public is proof enough that these donations are meant to steer legislative decisions and not to disseminate information to the public. It is not the mandate of ST to shape policy but rather to implement it.

        As an aside, if legally they were allowed to sponsor events that would seem to make far more sense than donating money as a “membership” (I did look at the membership contribution form on the web). As a sponsor you are listed which would provide advertising. That’s an expense that virtually everybody would say is important even for a publicly owned enterprise. Also, as a named sponsor you are implicitly endorsing a specific event (one that would presumably have a direct educational benefit related to ST) rather than providing a nebulous contribution to all activities of an organization. And, as a named sponsor, you have transparency rather than being an anonymous donor which is another problem I have with the ST contribution of way more than the basic membership fee.

  10. Not to belabor the point the the website is not the ONLY source of information on membership. Our organizational membership tiers start at $2500 and below and go up to $40,000. So Sound Transit would fit in the organizational membership category NOT the individual or family membership. We base these tiers on several criteria. This information while not on the website is available by emailing or calling us. It’s not a state secret :-) We provide all our organizational members a list of educational benefits that they receive for their membership. I take issue with you making assumptions and asserting them as fact. It’s as simple as that.

    Ironically the auditor found that the sponsorship of events was questionable (events where Sound Transit was acknowledged as a sponsor in literature and at the event). So your argument that Sound Transit is better off sponsoring events doesn’t really work. The audit report clearly states that organizational membership with us is perfectly appropriate. Just as a membership with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce or United Way (both which have lobbying arms) is appropriate.

    Finally you claim that Sound Transit only pays membership dues to us. Can you confirm this? As far as I am aware they are organizational members with plenty of other groups such as the American Association of Public Transportation etc. Besides, this is common and perfectly legal. Transit agencies nationwide are organizational members with local, state and national groups.

    While it’s not my intent to engage in a debate about Sound Transit – we don’t think there anything to debate here, I do want to make sure that we have an opportunity to correct factual errors or add missing information.


  11. Exactly what I was trying to point out. It is ironic that sponsorship of events, something transparent and targeted, is frowned on yet membership isn’t. It would seem perfectly reasonable to me for ST to sponsor an event (provided costs were reasonable for service performed) promoting something ST had done or is planing. The system seems backward but I’m not questioning that that is the way it’s currently structured.

    The outrage over the membership dues going only to Transportation Choices was from the section of the auditors report which I quoted. Looking at it again I’m guilty of taking it out of context. What it said was that the $8,050 in sponsorship money was given to three nonprofit organizations. It continues on to say, “Since 1999, the Transit Authority has made annual membership dues payments to one of the nonprofit organizations totaling $156,000.“. This implies that of the three non-profits which received sponsorship money only Transportation Choices has benefited from membership contribution. It doesn’t preclude ST from belonging to other non-profits.

    Being a member of a professional or engineering organization related to transit or planning could be appropriate and I can understand why an expenditure on the books in this category would be acceptable. ST is indeed a member of American Association of Public Transportation. They list all of their members on their website. And if I’m reading their tier membership dues right ST’s kicking in about $45,000 (I hope that’s one big ass stack of technical reports they’re getting). The slippery slope is deciding which organizations represent an appropriate expenditure of the public’s transit dollars. Of the two you mention; The Seattle Chamber of Commerce maybe (remember sub area equity), United Way I don’t think so. Where do you draw the line?

    I searched ST’s information for a list of organizations they belong to and searched their budget for a clues. It lists $331,883 for dues and memberships in 2008 but gives no hint as to whom they are contributing. What are the benefits the public is getting in return for this membership money? Apparently it is a bit of a state secret.

    BTW, according to the Rainer Valley Post the three organizations were Transportation Choices Coalition, Futurewise and the Cascade Land Conservancy.

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