08/16/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

BART Jobs: Agency Vendor Pushed To Boost Employment Numbers After Stimulus Promises

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Lance Williams and Zusha Elinson

When the Bay Area Rapid Transit District received $92 million in federal stimulus funds in 2009, it promised to create "thousands of jobs."

But to make its numbers after the money was spent, the transit agency resorted to pressuring and cajoling, emails obtained by California Watch show.

In a 2009 exchange, a BART supplier received a disapproving email after he said no jobs were created with a $4.8 million stimulus grant BART used to buy auxiliary power supply equipment for transit cars.

The supplier, rail manufacturing firm Bombardier Transportation, simply hadn't hired any new employees to build the units for BART, a Bombardier executive reported.

Zero was a bad number, replied BART project's manager.

"The Feds gave BART $4 million of stimulus money to purchase" power supply units, wrote Jim LaGuardia, a consultant hired by BART to manage the project.

"If we keep saying the stimulus money never achieved any of the stimulus goals, what makes you think we will get more stimulus money for the option APSEs," he wrote, using an acronym for auxiliary power supply equipment. "BART is in phase two of obtaining stimulus money (more Bombardier APSEs) and it is not going to look good if we keep reporting zero!"

The scolding apparently did the trick. The Bombardier executive came back with a number - the stimulus money had funded 196 work hours that quarter, he wrote.

Over the next two years, BART reported that stimulus money for the power unit contract had funded 24,103 work hours at Bombardier, records show. That's about 11.5 full-time jobs over a two-year period, said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost. The project also created work for 4.83 full-time mechanics at BART, she said.

BART did receive more stimulus money for the project. After the initial grant, the funding was increased to $11.2 million in 2010, records show.

Queried about the emails, Trost said BART's consultant "was just doing his job and just trying to get the numbers that needed to be reported to the federal government."

Maryanne Roberts, spokeswoman for Bombardier, wrote in an email that the company had felt "no pressure" from BART - "just some initial confusion as to what/how to report."

Experts who have studied the $787 billion stimulus program say that in the early going, reported jobs numbers were "soft, as you can imagine," as Robert Maitner, a Washington, D.C., consultant, put it. He studied the issue of the accuracy of stimulus jobs reporting for an academic journal, the Journal of Government Financial Management.

Genuine confusion over how to report the jobs data mingled with the impulse to pump up the numbers for political or other concerns, Maitner said. The process has always been "somewhat of a PR exercise," he said.

In 2009, nine months into the program, a study by the Government Accountability Office found that stimulus jobs reports were riddled with "erroneous or questionable data." The GAO noted thousands of exaggerated or questionable reports posted on the government's website.

To address the criticism and improve the accuracy of the numbers, in December 2009, the White House stopped asking stimulus recipients to report how many jobs they had created. Instead, they were asked to make quarterly reports of how many jobs had been paid for with stimulus funds. The change was made Dec. 18, a day after LaGuardia scolded Bombardier in the email exchange.

Even with the new method, the numbers shouldn't be taken as gospel, said Craig Jennings of the watchdog group OMB Watch.

"The numbers aren't really good enough for scientific reporting," Jennings said. "But they do give a guideline of what's going on."

In a 2010 publication titled "Report to Congress," BART said it hoped the $92 million in stimulus funds would be only the first installment. The initial funds paid for projects such as upgrading electrical service in BART stations ($20 million), building a rail track crossover in Pleasant Hill ($13 million) and replacing the auxiliary power supply equipment on 70 BART cars ($11.2 million).

In its report to Congress, BART promised the spending would have a big economic impact.

"All of these stimulus projects will generate more than 2,000 jobs - helping to assure that the BART system continues to contribute to the Bay Area economy," BART wrote in the report, signed by James Fang, then president of its board of directors, and then-General Manager Dorothy Dugger.

In October 2009, BART had awarded the contract for the auxiliary power supplies to Bombardier, a Canadian company that this year won the bid to build BART's fleet of new train cars. The units were built at Bombardier's plant near Pittsburgh, Pa.

In December 2009, LaGuardia, the BART consultant, emailed Bombardier executive Luke Mazurkiewicz.

"Please provide the number of direct, on-project jobs created or sustained by the ARRA funds," LaGuardia wrote, using the acronym for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the law behind the stimulus program.

At first, the Bombardier executive couldn't help him.

"BT has no on-site employees hired specifically for this project," Mazurkiewicz responded. "In fact, no jobs were created by this project.

"Insofar as 'sustained' jobs are concerned, that is a very subjective description.

"BT did not 'sustain' any jobs due to this project."

After LaGuardia chided him, Mazurkiewicz came back with some numbers: 46 job hours for November and 150 for December.

"Please indicate if this is what you are looking for?" Mazurkiewicz asked.

"Yes it is," LaGuardia replied.

BART Idiot Hall Of Fame

Lance Williams and Zusha Elinson are investigative reporters for California Watch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.