Ithaca, N.Y. — It all started with a simple question about a few errant invoices.
Auditors of TCAT wanted to know if the bus service had properly billed some of its expenses.
Pamela Johnson, then TCAT’s accounts assistant, went through the files. She stayed at work until 8:42 p.m. on Thursday, March 13, and prepared the list of relevant invoices for her boss. He sent the records to the auditors the next morning.
The auditor called Johnson’s boss back later that day, March 14. Some of the invoices were missing. Where were the records for a company named “JTD Enterprises?”
At that point, police and TCAT officials hadn’t yet discovered the evidence that would lead to felony grand larceny charges against Johnson.
Johnson, 54, would eventually be arrested and accused of pilfering nearly $250,000 from the bus service’s coffers.
TCAT Controller Richard Andrascik began looking into “JTD” by looking through Johnson’s office, according to Ithaca police records. (This account is based on these police records.)
The pay stubs for JTD were missing. Andrascik began asking around the office about the mysterious company.
TCAT’s purchasing projects manager had never heard of “JTD.” Neither had Lee Hargett, who is responsible for purchasing parts for TCAT.
“I think it was at this point that I noticed that no one had signed off on the invoice and also that there was no packing slip attached to the invoice,” Andrascik said, according to the police reports.
Andrascik called the number listed for “JTD.” Dead line.
“I then decided to call Pam at home,” Andrascik later told police.
“I believe that this was when she told me that the charge was for oil testing, or cleaning of oil sludge, or something…”
Much more than $3,950
TCAT official Daniel Tome started digging that Friday, police records show.
Auditors and TCAT’s controller had flagged a strange payment to “JTD.” But, at that point, they’d only seen that $3,950 had gone to the supposed company.
Tome looked into the records. He found that the non-profit bus company had paid $132,999.50 to “JTD” in 2013.
“Not familiar with JTD at all, I checked transactions back to the year 2000 and moved forward through 2009,” said Tome, TCAT’s purchasing projects manager, according to police records.
What he found shocked him: TCAT had also paid “JTD” $42,913.55 in 2011 and $68,862.50 in 2012, records show.
“All for a company I had not approved one procurement request for,” Tome told police.
Tome dug a little more. He called the post office in Cortland – the city JTD was registered in – but its staff “tersely informed” him that it couldn’t say what was located at JTD’s listed address.
The phone number for the company was registered to the Night Owl Bar, on state Route 11 in Cortland.
‘Urgent Need at TCAT’
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 18, TCAT’s Alice Eccleston met with Tome. He brought a printed list of transactions between “JTD” and TCAT from 2010 to 2014. They totaled $248,508.55.
“As I reviewed these reports, I became very alarmed at the number of transactions and the amount of money,” said Eccleston, the assistant general manager and HR manager of the bus service, according to police reports.
Eccleston called TCAT’s attorney. Eccleston spoke with the auditors, then made copies of the reports and stamped them “confidential.” She huddled in a small conference room with a representative from the auditors.
Eccleston emerged from the meeting and fired off an email to the vice president of Ithaca’s Elmira Savings Bank.
“Urgent Need at TCAT,” Eccleston wrote.
“This is a confidential issue I would only ask that you contact me … Please call me.”
Less than 40 minutes later, Eccleston sent the official, Elmira Savings Bank Vice President Christopher J. Mekos, a second email before receiving a reply.
“I would need the bank to stop immediately payment on any checks made out to the Vendor JTD as we suspect fraud,” Eccleston said. “Give me a call.”
Eccleston worked with bank officials to determine if the checks to “JTD” were fraudulent. Eccleston said that it appears that the TCAT general manager’s stamp was used on the checks, according to police records.
Then she spoke to Mike Albanese, TCAT’s safety manager, and drafted a letter of suspension for Johnson.
Asked to leave
Pamela Johnson was working at her desk in TCAT’s offices on Willow Avenue shortly after 3:30 p.m. on March 18 when she was approached by two TCAT officials.
Eccleston was one of them. Eccleston told Johnson she would be suspended “effective immediately due to some financial concerns.”
Johnson, who had worked at TCAT for five years, asked if she could finish her report and Eccleston said that she could.
“Pamela asked if she could take her personal effects and I said yes,” Eccleston told police, according to police records.
Johnson packed up and left. Eccleston asked for her official TCAT signature stamp that she would use to approve documents when TCAT’s general manager was not available.
“When she was about done, she asked me if this had anything to do with JTD,” Eccleston said in police records. “I told her I could not speak about anything.”
Johnson turned over her keys and was escorted out to her car.
The case forms
On Wednesday, March 19, Eccleston sent an email to TCAT’s attorney and Kyu-Jung Whang, the chair of TCAT’s board of directors, to let them know of Johnson’s suspension. The next day, Thursday, March 20, Eccleston reported what had happened to the TCAT Board of Directors Executive Committee. The committee told her to call the Ithaca Police Department.
On Friday, March 21, Officer Kevin Slattery arrived at TCAT to begin investigating the crime.
Authorities eventually announced that Johnson diverted nearly a quarter-million dollars into an unauthorized bank account controlled by Johnson, according to a press release from the Ithaca Police Department.
Johnson was arraigned in Ithaca City Court. She could not be reached for comment. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“It is deeply disappointing to learn that a steward of these resources allegedly put her personal interests ahead of the taxpayers, funding partners, and riders who support and rely on TCAT every day,” said a joint statement from Mayor Svante Myrick, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Michael Lane and Cornell Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina.
An auditing firm will do a forensic audit of TCAT in the next few weeks to make sure no more money was taken, said Patty Poist, TCAT spokesperson, in May.
“TCAT does not know where the money is now,” Poist said, but it is “working with the district attorney’s office to seek as full a restitution as possible.”
The press release announcing Johnson’s arrest said police had tied her to the false bank account.
“Police investigators determined that the vender never provided goods or services to TCAT,” Chief of Police John Barber said in an April 2 press release.
Officers also eventually learned what “JTD” stood for: Johnson Tool Design.