Columbus, Ohio Transit Union Probed for $300K+ in Thefts

Transport Workers Union Local 208 is now in receivership. There are good reasons for that. For the last half-year, the Columbus, Ohio union has been investigated by the FBI and local police in the wake of an internal audit revealing the loss of nearly $350,000 from its coffers over a half-decade. The likely culprit, an unnamed female who had been secretary-treasurer, has resigned. Local 208 represents about 860 bus drivers and other employees of the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA). “There is no place in the TWU for officials who abuse their power and the trust of membership,” said International Union President John Samuelsen last November after news of the thefts broke. As of late May, no criminal charges have been filed.

The identity of the person who apparently ripped off TWU Local 208 has not been made public. But one thing is certain: Nearly $350,000 is gone. Last fall, the local, backed by the international union, filed a complaint with Columbus police over misuse of its checking account and ATM card. Local President Jarvis Williams had gone to the bank on September 30 to investigate unpaid bills and discovered serious problems. Williams and a TWU representative confronted the likely offender, the unnamed secretary-treasurer, and demanded an explanation. She resigned on October 5, though without being arrested. Police Sergeant James Fuqua explained the situation in November: “At this time we are looking at one particular person but that does not mean that, as the investigation continues to unfold, that there may be additional people that are involved in this incident.”

In the meantime, the Washington, D.C.-based international union hired an accounting firm, Fraud Solutions, to audit the local books. The report, released to the TWU in late February, concluded that the local lost $338,577.44 due to the former secretary-treasurer’s actions. Most of the losses occurred in two ways. In the first scheme, the secretary-treasurer used her union ATM card to make 519 withdrawals during September 22, 2014-September 3, 2019 for personal use totaling $261,765.50, nearly $50,000 of which was disguised as charitable donations to a local YMCA. In the second scheme, this official received reimbursements during March 1, 2018-October 30, 2019 for unsupported union business expenses totaling $74,160.94. A much smaller sum of a little over $2,500 was stolen through other means. In addition, the union lost $10,593.16 at the hands of unidentified computer hackers. Total loss: $349,170.60.

All this has put a severe dent in Local 208 finances. When TWU headquarters took over the local, the latter entity by the end of the year had only around $78,000 available for operations. This sum is well short of the $158,000 that the union owes COTA for “lost time” payments; i.e., reimbursements for wages received by workers while performing union business. “This conduct has wreaked havoc on the finances of Local 208 and likely damaged the confidence the members placed in their local leadership,” noted the WTU’s trial committee in a February 26 letter. International President Samuelsen asserted his determination to “get the facts, fix the problems, and demand justice and restore trust.” For rank and file, these things can’t come soon enough.