Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interim HCTRA director: There are no plans to conduct a "witch hunt."

Free EZ Tags Rack Up $1.3M In Charges


KPRC (Channel 2) Houston
Copyright 2007

HOUSTON -- Note: The following story is a verbatim transcript of an Investigators story that aired on Thursday, June 28, 2007, on KPRC Local 2 at 4 p.m.

KPRC Local 2 Investigates uncovered thousands of EZ Tag users who were given a free pass on Harris County toll roads. Now we're learning just how much money that may have cost you and me. KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold has been crunching the numbers.

In the last 13 months, those with free EZ Tags accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in toll charges. This is the first time in the 15 years these free tags have been issued the Toll Road Authority has taken a close look at the program.

We've spent the day digging through the records, looking at who has these tags and asking what toll road leaders are going to do now.

Fifty-five hundred people have a free EZ Tag, and in the last 13 months these riders have racked up more than $1.3 million in toll charges -- all while you'll now have to pay a quarter more every time you go through the tollbooth.

When we examined the list of those with free EZ Tags, the majority are on government-owned cars and trucks, like police officers and firefighters.

But we also found personal cars like Mercedeses, Jaguars, BMWs, Cadillacs and Lincolns. All of these people are county employees but are only supposed to use the free tags for county business. Until now, the Toll Road Authority has never checked to make sure everyone is following the rules. Even so, interim Toll Road Authority director Peter Key says there are no plans to conduct what he calls a "witch hunt."

"Going back in the past and trying to find people that may or may not have been serving the toll road, I think that defeats the purpose of why we're here right now," Key said.

Key says the purpose is to come up with stricter policies, and one decision has already been made. Toll road employees who don't need any EZ Tag to do their job are losing the perk. The same scrutiny will also apply to other county employees who have a tag on their personal car.

"Robert, I understand the Toll Road Authority doesn't want to run a witch hunt. But can anyone be disciplined if it's shown they've abused the privilege?" KPRC Local 2 anchor Jerome Gray asked.

"No, they can't. Let me explain how Harris County government works. It doesn't matter if you work for Mosquito Control or if you work for the Harris County Hospital District, an official county policy is not official unless it's been approved by commissioner's court. In the 15 years they've been handing out these EZ Tags, no one got it approved by Commissioner's Court, so even if they did catch somebody red-handed, they can't do anything about it," Arnold said. "The point now is to come up with a policy that is approved by Commissioner's Court and, therefore, it would be enforceable and they can discipline somebody."

If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).

© 2007

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