Pa. Ethics Commission blasts SEPTA for allowing ex-employee to break contracting rules

SEPTA trolley tunnel (SEPTA)

SEPTA trolley tunnel (SEPTA)

The Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission blasted top SEPTA officials for allowing an employee to retire, take a job with an engineering consultancy, and return as a private consultant within the span of a few weeks.

Both state ethics codes and SEPTA’s own internal regulations prohibit employees from being retained as private consultants for one year. A SEPTA spokesperson described the violation as “a mistake that was corrected.”

But while the fines levied over the violation of the state ethics code were minimal, insiders said the saga highlights a series of issues at the agency: double-dipping, too-cozy relationships with outside contractors, and dubious executive oversight. The ethics violations also occurred while officials were engaged in efforts to respond to an existing FBI and SEPTA Inspector General investigation, which ended with fraud charges for nine ex-employees or outside vendors.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

According to an ethics board adjudication, Mark Honebrink, a former administrator for SEPTA’s Engineering, Maintenance & Construction division, was offered a job with the Philadelphia office of engineering consultancy Michael Baker International in December 2019. MBI had begun a two-year, $8 million consulting contract with SEPTA less than six months prior.

Honebrink, a 39-year employee, was one of several dozen managers that would leave the EM&C division in the months following revelations it was targeted by a federal corruption probe. He advised then-EM&C head Robert Lund of his intent to retire at the end of 2019, but later agreed to delay his departure by 30 days at Lund’s request to “assist with personnel matters concerning the…investigation.”

In January 2020, Lund asked Honebrink to delay his retirement again. Instead, like dozens of other managers, Honebrink opted to retire, begin collecting a pension, and then get hired back by SEPTA as a “part-time” employee at a rate equivalent to a $129,000 annual salary, according to SEPTA payroll records.

The arrangement was not meant to be long-lasting. By March 2020, Honebrink was meant to fully transition off SEPTA’s payroll –– although agency officials planned to then retain him as a $60-an-hour consultant through MBI, reporting directly to Lund. According to contracting documents, SEPTA wanted him to assist with COVID-19 response.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

According to ethics filings, SEPTA officials appeared to be aware that aspects of the arrangement might raise red flags due to the ethics code. Lund authorized SEPTA General Counsel Gino Benedetti to provide Honebrink with a letter stating that he could perform consulting work under certain conditions.

“[Honebrink] may provide services to SEPTA as an MBI consultant before March 1, 2021, only if expressly requested by SEPTA in the form of a task order or e-mail,” Benedetti wrote.

The attorney did not consult the ethics board. But between March and May 2020, ethics officials made several presentations to SEPTA officials. According to the agency, Benedetti realized from these meetings that he had erred and, in June 2020, Benedetti killed the work order requesting Honebrink’s services. He later admitted to investigators that he had “misinterpreted” the guidelines.

Ultimately, the board opted to impose minimal penalties on Honebrink –– a $250 dollar fine –– because he had essentially been advised by top officials to violate the contracting provision.

In a statement this month, SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch explained that Honebrink’s “skills and expertise” were badly needed during the pandemic. He said neither Benedetti nor Lund had or would face any consequences over the flap.

“This was a mistake based on a good-faith interpretation of the State Ethics Act by SEPTA’s general counsel. It was corrected,” Busch said.

Robert P. Caruso, Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal