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Jaunt settles lawsuit for $4,000, provides documents on former CEO

Jaunt has agreed to pay local radio host Rob Schilling $4,000 as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit settlement.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Schilling in January, who posted a story on his website the month prior claiming an anonymous internal source told him that the transportation group was under investigation for “spending irregularities.”

Per the settlement, in addition to the lump sum, Schilling received “… all documents reflecting ‘good, services, and travel’ that Jaunt’s 2020 audit (as previously produced to Petitioner) determined were violative of Jaunt’s internal control policies for Fiscal Year 2020.”

Jody Saunders, director of public relations for Jaunt, said the agency will answer FOIA requests going forward, but it still needs to do training and education for its employees around the act.

According to Schilling, the spending irregularities centered around former Jaunt CEO Brad Sheffield — who was asked by Jaunt’s board to step down in December — and involved “excessive spending, particularly for travel, meals, rooms and unnecessary travel.”

It was later revealed that the “investigation” was actually part of an annual audit that was conducted on behalf of Jaunt by the firm Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates.

Schilling’s request for documents under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act were denied by Jaunt, which claimed the organization was not subject to FOIA, prompting the months-long legal battle.

Despite the fight, Schilling said he was pleased with the results and said he received a copy of the documents he requested Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m disappointed that it took this much effort and that they were not forthcoming with the information as a publicly funded organization, which I think everybody knew they were,” he said. “I believe they should have been upfront about it, however, they chose to take a different path, but I’m pleased that the judge saw it the same way that my attorney and I did and that we will have access to this information.”

Filed in Charlottesville General District Court soon after Jaunt’s refusal, Schilling’s lawsuit claimed in part that Jaunt is subject to FOIA because it is a public body that is “wholly or principally” supported by public funds.

The biggest issue of contention was whether federal sources of funding, from which Jaunt receives around $5 million of its $12 million annual budget, count, according to Schilling’s filings. Though the organization has contested these funding-specific figures, Jaunt did not deny that federal funding made up a significant portion of its budget.

A judge validated Schilling’s argument in February, allowing the lawsuit to continue and writing that federal funds do indeed count as public funds. After a few continued hearings, the parties reached an agreement and a settlement was signed in April.

Whether legally obligated to or not, Schilling said organizations like Jaunt have a fiduciary duty to the public to be transparent in their operations.

“This game of hide-and-seek by Jaunt and Sheffield is astounding to me and it’s insulting to the public, because even if you think you have a way to hide the information, you shouldn’t be doing it,” he said. “If we were operating everything like this, including local government, people would be up in arms over it and I hope people are up in arms over this attempt at what I would call ‘institutional protectionism.’”

According to Schilling, the $4,000 settlement will be given to his attorney, Matt Hardin, and Schilling paid $100 in fees to obtain the documents he requested back in December.

The documents were released Wednesday and detail Sheffield’s travel spending throughout 2019 and 2020 via a series of receipts. The cost of some of the trips exceeded $7,000, including two trips to Paris for an autonomous vehicle conference and the European Mobility Conference, and a conference in London. Per the documents, one of the Paris conferences was set for June 2020 and it is unlikely Sheffield was able to attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

In response to the released documents, Sheffield said this was the first time he saw the board’s and auditor’s items of concern.

“During the only meeting offered to discuss my expenses with the board, I was denied access to the list the full board was referencing,” he said.

Sheffield said profits from private contracts funded these expenses, and pointed to denotations of the private fund account code “040” on the receipts and reimbursements.

“Labeling receipts with the private fund code is the first of a five-step internal control process to ensure only private funds are used and prevent misuse of government funds,” he said. Earlier this week, Sheffield released a statement and website about his management of Jaunt. In an interview, he said he wanted to show how private contract revenue helped the agency overall.

“We wouldn’t have accomplished the things that we’ve done unless we had the private profits to reinvest in the efforts to keep the momentum going,” Sheffield said.

He said Jaunt used $655,304 in profits from private contracts to fund $175,036 in employee travel, as well as $181,995 in food, events, goods and services to “demonstrate employee appreciation and value to deepen loyalty and commitment of staff.” The final $298,273 was used for public services instead of using government funds, Sheffield said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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