Cab wars: Jaunt comes under fire

Drive into Keystone Place, the Belmont office park that houses the headquarters of Jaunt, and one of the first things you'll see are two vans decorated with printed banners. The huge vinyl message boards make bold accusations against the government-funded transportation organization: patronage, nepotism, and mismanagement of city, county, state, and federal funds.

In other words, serious stuff.

The company responsible for the banners is City Cab, owned by Jon Rocha. Rocha's father, Bill Rocha, who helps his son run the business and owns several other transportation businesses in the mid-Atlantic region, says City Cab's contract to provide transportation for Jaunt clients was unfairly and illegally severed in July based on "trumped up charges."

Rocha says his trouble with Jaunt, which provides rides to low income and disabled area residents, began with two incidents. The first occurred when an anonymous caller allegedly told Jaunt that one of City Cab's drivers, who has cerebral palsy but is fully licensed to drive a cab, was speeding. The claim, Rocha says, could not be confirmed and no ticket was ever issued by police. Then, Rocha says, came a second complaint that one of City Cab's drivers had been rude. The only problem? "None of our cars were out that day," he laughs.

Though Rocha says neither complaint led to any action, Jaunt did eventually terminate its contract with his son's company, claiming City Cab had not properly insured one of its cars.

Despite providing documents from his insurance agency which The Hook has examined to all appearances indicating no lapse in coverage, Rocha says Jaunt's Executive Director Donna Shaughnesey refused to reinstate City Cab's contract.

"Our interest is in protecting the folks who ride with us," Shaughnesey now says. Using City Cab, she adds, compromised Jaunt's customers' safety, though she would not elaborate.

Rocha has since retained the law firm of John P. Cattano and Robert B. Bell (who is also a state Delegate) to represent him in his case against Jaunt.

"We... agree with your assessment that you have a viable claim against Jaunt for breach of contract and resulting damages," wrote Cattano in a September letter.

But the termination of City Cab's Jaunt contract is just the tip of the iceberg, Rocha says and he believes the conflict with Jaunt is due to Jaunt's other subcontractor of transportation, Yellow Transportation Services Inc., owned by Becky Graves. Rocha says Graves received "a sweetheart deal" with Jaunt some eight years ago. Rocha further claims that Yellow charges far more for the service it provides than it would cost for Jaunt to provide the rides itself.

Rocha says Yellow Transportation was given its first contract back in the mid-'90s without responding to an RFP request for proposals– a legally required step for any publicly funded agency before it hands over public money to a private enterprise.

Rocha is not the only one who makes the assertion that Graves was given the contract unfairly.

"We were told to do it," says Jaunt's then-Executive Director Linda Wilson. Though Wilson is quick to point out that she's been out of the transportation business for nearly eight years, she recalls a mid-'90s visit from two higher-ups Charles Badger and Darrel Feasel– in the state transportation division: "'You have to subcontract to Yellow Cab,'" they reportedly told her, referring to Graves' other company. (Graves created Yellow Transportation specifically for subcontracting work to Jaunt.)

Feasel doesn't remember the visit, and he denies the allegation. "We would never tell an agency," Feasel says, "that they had to contract to one company."

Badger recalls paying a call on Jaunt, but says there was nothing untoward about the visit.

"There was no strong-arming, instructing [Jaunt] that they had to do business with one company," he insists. He says his visit was in response to allegations from Yellow Transportation's Graves that Jaunt was refusing to consider subcontracting to her company. Badger says that was in violation of a then-new federal regulation requiring government agencies to consider subcontracts to the private sector whenever they expanded their services. He says Jaunt was told to follow those guidelines.

"We told them if [Yellow] could do it cheaper and at a similar level of service," Badger explains, then Yellow should be given a chance.

Both Jaunt's Shaughnesey and Yellow Transportation's Graves also vehemently deny Rocha's accusations of impropriety. Graves says she made several attempts to answer the RFP before being granted the Jaunt contract.

After three separate FOIA requests to Jaunt, apparently The Hook still had not been clear enough about requesting "itemized invoices" regarding Yellow Transportation's payments from Jaunt. What we could ascertain is that transportation is an expensive business.

For the month of August 2002, Jaunt paid Yellow Transportation Services more than $20,000, though exactly how many miles or how much time that money represents is still not clear.

But Yellow Transportation's Graves says she can give more than just her word that "There is no sweetheart deal with Jaunt." She says she has irrefutable proof: Jaunt cancelled its contract with Yellow Transportation on September 16, according to both Jaunt and Graves.

The termination stemmed from an incident two weeks earlier. Graves says one of Yellow's drivers was late returning from a personal trip to Richmond for his Jaunt shift. He didn't have time to exchange vehicles on his way home, so rather than leaving a client rideless, the driver decided to offer a Jaunt client a ride in his personal vehicle. That, according to the Jaunt contract, is a major no-no.

Graves says she had no prior knowledge of the illegal ride and says she offered Jaunt proof that insurance coverage never lapsed. She insists the client was given a safe and courteous ride, but she acknowledges the ride was a violation of the contract. In fact, at Jaunt's request, she fired the driver who committed the infraction and she believed that had settled the matter. But four days after her driver's termination, Graves says, she received notice that her entire contract had been terminated.

Was it such an egregious violation that it warranted this extreme measure? Graves wonders. Five full-time drivers and two standbys were put out of work by the termination of the contract, she says. Graves makes no allegations against Jaunt she simply hoped to clear things up so that her cars and drivers could get back to work driving Jaunt customers. And that's just what happened on October 26.

 Graves and her attorney attended the Jaunt board meeting on September 30. A couple of weeks later, Graves received a letter from Jaunt reinstating her contract.

"Jaunt acknowledges that there might be mitigating circumstances which might justify reinstating the [Yellow] contract," Graves read from the letter. Citing concern over Yellow's tenuous relationship with Jaunt, Graves, on her lawyer's advice, declined to show the letter to The Hook. The Hook filed a FOIA request with Jaunt for a copy of the letter, and received the agreement but not the letter Graves read from.

Jaunt's Shaughnesey did not return The Hook's calls or emails about the letter by press time.

Rocha has his own ideas about Jaunt's recent dealings with Yellow. He believes "there's not any question" that both the termination and reinstatement of Yellow were "carefully plotted" and he believes that his allegation-laden banners and the attention they have attracted are the basis for the maneuvering by Jaunt. "They're scared," he says.

As for Jaunt, director Shaughnesey cites Yellow's termination as proof that Rocha's claims are without foundation. "There's no sweetheart deal with Yellow," she says.

Shaughnesey says a new RFP for subcontracted transportation will likely be put out in the near future, but whether Rocha's City Cab will be allowed to respond remains to be seen. "The board will make that decision," Shaughnesey says.

Public Transportation's Badger says his office is aware of the allegations and terminations connected with Jaunt, but he says there is no investigation planned. As far as he's concerned, the Jaunt board has acted properly and within their rights in terminating both City Cab's and Yellow Transportation's contracts.

If the decision is left up to the board, however, Rocha says he thinks there's little chance City Cab's contract will be reinstated. "It's a rubber stamp board," he says.

Rocha says the banners at the Jaunt office are but an opening salvo in this battle and in fact a new banner in front of Jaunt headquarters now makes even more personal statements. Addressed to "Ms. Shaughnesey," the latest banner demands, "RESIGN NOW." It further states that "a new nonpolitical, knowledgeable Board" be put into place.

"City Cab will drive for Jaunt again," Rocha vows, explaining that he is prepared to undertake a lengthy and pricey legal battle. But beyond that goal, he simply wants his son to learn a simple fact: "Honesty will always prevail," he says with a smile.