Tens of thousands of motorists who pay tolls on the South Bay Expressway — a 10-mile stretch of state Route 125 — have been charged incorrectly, says the former director of accounting at SANDAG.
In a lawsuit filed Friday against the San Diego Association of Governments, that official, Lauren Warrem, says she was fired Nov. 7 by agency CEO Hasan Ikhrata and Chief Financial Officer Andre Douzdjian with no reason given.
Josh Gruenberg and colleagues at his San Diego law firm are representing Warrem, 48, of Poway.
Gruenberg says Warrem refused to go along with “sweeping it under the rug” and insisted on transparency, “and she was terminated for that.”
“My client tells me that [drivers] complain daily, and SANDAG will simply look into it and change the account,” Gruenberg told Times of San Diego. “But you know, most people don’t call. Most people use the toll road so often that they’re never really going to be able to know when they’re charged improperly.”
The 10-page lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court — alleging retaliation and wrongful termination — says many trips on the 125 toll road are being charged to the wrong account — whether via the FasTrak transponders or license-plate readers.
“The accounting is just a mess,” Gruenberg said Friday. “Apparently they’ve known about it for some time. … If [motorist] charges are off by 10% or 20% or even 30%, they probably wouldn’t know.”
In a statement, SANDAG CEO Ikhrata said: “We are not able to comment on personnel matters or possible litigation. Regarding the remaining questions, management has advised our auditors and the board that there are concerns with the new operational system on the SR 125 and are taking active steps to address these matters.”
The suit gave examples of the miscues:
(1) Customer A deposited money into their toll account, but that money was credited to Customer J’s account. (2) When Customer B drove through a toll lane, the charge was incorrectly applied to Customer J’s account.
Warrem thinks errors may affect up to 45,000 customer accounts, but Gruenberg said 45,000 “is at the low end.” He’s not aware of other San Diego County toll roads with similar issues.
The national service for toll-road administration known as ETAN “promised they would generate reports that would resolve the variances,” the suit says, later adding:
“After delaying the reports for several weeks, ETAN’s accountant verbally admitted that they were not able to get the promised financial reports to clean up and support complete and accurate trial balances. ETAN’s accountant also admitted that as more variances were resolved, additional variances were discovered.”
Warrem had an annual pay of $243,762 and a CalPERS retirement plan of 2.7% at age 55, says the suit demanding a jury trial.
Texas-based ETAN didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
But on its website, ETAN Tolling Technology, which has an Irvine office, says:
ETAN provides an enhanced payment experience that is accurate, convenient and secure for everyone involved. Our system helps toll authorities bridge the gap between the financial and operational aspects of managing video toll transactions. FASTLane’s financial capabilities have been designed by accountants for accountants, and provide transparency all the way to the transaction level. The real-time dashboard presents updated financial and operational information, enabling fast decision making and the ability to provide confidence to bond holders.
Because of tolling’s unique relationship with the customer, delinquent accounts are never suspended even after they are submitted for collections, which requires the billing and third-party recovery processes to operate in parallel. ETAN is able to provide expertise in both areas, as well as an understanding of the regulatory segregation required to operate these processes simultaneously. The result is a unique process continuity that fosters operational efficiency and an outstanding customer experience.
Other dominoes could fall as a result of the lawsuit, Warrem suggests.
In an FYI note to Gruenberg, she says: “The new toll system that is replacing ETAN’s failed system on SR125 and I-15 HOV lanes will also be used as part of the new Otay Mesa East Border Crossing to collect tolls. So this has federal impacts. SANDAG is trying to secure federal funding for [Otay Mesa East] construction. More pressure to keep this on the hush.”