Sunday, March 30, 2008

TxDOT spokeswoman denies agency's responsibility for altered check

Case of the altered toll check remains a mystery


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2008

Good news and bad news.

First the bad news: Readers asked me to follow up on my report last month about an angry Fort Worth couple who believe that someone at a toll-road payment-processing center overseen by the Texas Department of Transportation inappropriately altered their payment check.

So I filed a Public Information Act request with the agency to see whether it investigated and found a culprit.

It's clear that somebody altered the check that Debbie and Brian Gibbs wrote to TxTag -- the operators of the Texas 121 North toll road --from $2.60 to $5.60. The digit 2 is turned into a 5. And the written two is converted to five.

The department's audit report came back: "We were unable to determine who altered the check or when the check was altered," Auditor-in-Charge Lee H. Stone wrote.

Department spokeswoman Gabriela Garcia told me last week: "We're very certain that it did not occur on our side." Then, referring to the Gibbs family, she added that the check alteration "could have occurred [by] the other party for that matter as well. We don't know."

When I told Debbie Gibbs that an agency spokeswoman suggested that she could have altered her own check, Gibbs replied:

"I'm not in the habit of writing checks for more than the bills are. They are calling me a liar. I can't stand it. I'm furious. I want some type of ownership as to who did it, and why they did it. And trying to say that I did it is ludicrous!"

Brian Gibbs told me that when he first called TxTag to complain, a supervisor told him that it shouldn't be difficult to track who handled the check because employees log in with identifying information on all transactions.

I asked Garcia about those identifying procedures, but she wouldn't answer, saying instead, "There was no motive for a payment processor to change a check to match the bill statement." But that wasn't my question.

The Watchdog sees a possible reason for a TxTag worker to change the check: TxTag first sent a bill for $2.60 to the Gibbs for tolls on Texas 121. After Debbie Gibbs sent a check for that amount, the family received a bill for $3 more. Did someone at TxTag alter the check to clear the account? (I'd call that "customer service to the extreme.")

In any event, no one from the state contacted the couple after their initial complaint in January and after the audit was completed in March. That's pitiful customer service by the Transportation Department.

One more thing: The Watchdog report appeared Feb. 5. The open records request was sent and received Feb. 27. The audit was conducted March 4-7.

Anyone want to bet that the agency wouldn't have done the audit if I hadn't filed the open records request?

Debbie Gibbs says she intends to take the matter to her state legislator for further help.

If anything happens, I will let you know.

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