MTA Watchdog Makes Inroads On Money Train
January 29, 1996
By CHIP JACOBS
Daily News Staff Writer
Arthur Sinai has seen the look before, that wide-eyed expression new acquaintances flash him after learning he’s the man behind the Super Bowl of local white collar investigations: the Metro Rail case.
Two years into his job as the MTA’s inspector general, the Brooklyn native – who has chased everyone from tax cheats to Nazi war criminals during his 35-year career – still gets a chuckle.
“They say, ‘Geez, you took that on?’ Or ‘God bless you. Just do it and nobody can touch you,’ ” said Sinai.
Heady stuff for a guy who nearly hung up his sleuthing badge for slower-paced consulting jobs. Today, that’s looking like Dullsville.
Sinai has re-energized the Office of Inspector General, which is knee-deep in a wide-ranging probe of the $5.8 billion subway system that can’t seem to dig its way out of scandal and public doubt.
Even for the grizzled Sinai, it’s a little like being a Doberman at the slaughterhouse gates. He won’t call it Whitewater West, but he acknowledges the magnitude of the job is enough to keep his agents buzzing for years.
Consider this: The Metropolitan Transportation Authority fields a $3 billion budget and retains more lobbyists than the state Capitol.
“The potential for waste and abuse is huge,” Sinai, 56, said recently over breakfast near his Sierra Madre home. “The bottom line is that the agency doesn’t have strong enough internal controls to ensure taxpayers get what they paid for.”
He’s made some progress toward that end.
Sinai’s crew discovered that competition for a $73 million pact to oversee construction of the Red Line’s North Hollywood leg had been tainted by document shredding, leaked bidding information and conflicts of interest. They also uncovered $2 million worth of questionable change orders on another Metro Rail job.
Last summer, meanwhile, Sinai’s lieutenants broke new ground by raiding an MTA tunneling contractor. Accompanied by federal agents, they hauled off boxes of documents from Shea-Kiewit-Kenny after it came under fire for the Hollywood Boulevard sinkhole and its use of wooden tunnel braces.
But the coup de grace was the indictment of Abdoul Sessay. Once an obscure MTA insurance manager, he became the first person criminally charged on the subway project. He pleaded guilty to pocketing about $25,000 worth of kickbacks in return for helping consultants score transit contracts.
Sinai’s aggressive tactics have made an impression. Some agency insiders are so certain that Sinai and his 32-member staff will root out big-time wrongdoing, they talk about him with gallows humor.
“Every time I see him I ask him whether we need a squad car or sheriff’s bus to haul away the criminals,” said MTA board member James Cragin. “He just kind of laughs and says, ‘Have the bus ready.’ I think in another year there will be some startling things.”
Reports to the MTA board show Sinai’s office had roughly 40 ongoing criminal investigations as of Sept. 30. They center on contract fraud, influence-peddling, conflicts of interest, theft, minority-business fronts and the like.
Sinai’s troops also conduct audits, and some produce eye-popping conclusions. One found the MTA could be losing millions of dollars yearly because of embezzlement and poor management at the bus-fare-counting office. Another found the MTA’s own auditing office doesn’t perform follow-ups – a finding that thrust Sinai into one of several turf wars.
Despite these triumphs, some grumble it’s not enough to restore the public’s faith that the “money train,” as freshly sacked MTA chief Franklin White described it, has been derailed.
“We haven’t see any major revelations,” said one ranking agency staffer. “The only thing he’s really produced is Sessay and the SKK” raid.
Sinai brushes that jab aside, saying it takes time to pore over telephone-book-size contracts, interview witnesses, discard bad tips and build winnable cases.
His supporters note it took the FBI almost five years to conclude a sting operation aimed at uncovering kickbacks, before a slew of top California lawmakers, including state Assemblyman Pat Nolan, were wearing prison gray.
Making his life more difficult was the operation he inherited at the Office of Inspector General. It had only one full-time investigator, limited powers and little security. There was also the legacy of two transit sleuths fired for uncovering a minority-business scam.
Today, a powerhouse team propelled by a $3 million budget is crystallizing. Most of Sinai’s 15 investigators come from the FBI, the Secret Service, the Pentagon and the U.S. Department of Transportation, as well as state and local government.
“This is not the biggest, most important job I’ve had. That was at the Treasury Department,” said Sinai, who makes about $119,000 a year as the MTA’s top investigator. “I don’t have any more mountains to climb. The important thing here is to do it right and create a professional watchdog agency.”
In looks and style, Sinai zig-zags between avuncular college professor and ruffled gumshoe in the “Columbo” mode. Catch on to a point and he’ll give you his trademark, “Thaaat’s right.”
Sinai spends his leisure time with his wife, Christina, collecting antique police badges and working with pro-animal groups. Though a New Yorker, he says he has little of the “Yous-talking-to-me attitude.”
At least he’s not alone policing MTA shenanigans. Working with him is a squadron of agencies: the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Internal Revenue Service, among others.
After developing a case, Sinai’s office typically will turn it over to the U.S. attorney, who takes it to a federal grand jury for indictments.
Sinai’s has no shortage of admirers.
Robert Bonner, a former U.S. attorney in the Los Angeles region, believes Sinai has the character, background and independence to make a multi-pronged inquiry bearH fruit.
“It’s a pressure-cooker job,” said Bonner. “This is the largest public works job in the nation. But Art’s an old hand. He know’s what is involved.”
“He’s been able to establish the posture he’s sincere,” added MTA board chairman Larry Zarian. “Just the fact he has this background and brought these people here should chill the spine of anyone with the idea of doing something wrong.”
A proofreader’s son, Sinai was reared in the slums of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, where his top grades and grown-up looks made him a target for neighborhood toughs.
One day, his father gave him 25 cents to fight back, and he did.
After college, he joined the IRS, spending seven years as a hard-driving young agent pursuing tax scofflaws. From there, he was recruited to jobs in the federal government, Congress and New York State.
By the mid-1970s Sinai was in Illinois, heading up a special watchdog unit that revealed the mob’s influence in the beautician business and a test-fixing scam implicating a top state official. His investigations caught the eye of President Carter’s administration, and he was hired as the top law enforcement official for the Treasury Department.
That job segued into a Justice Department post tracking Nazi war criminals. One case took him to East Germany and Poland, where he dealt with Soviet Bloc intelligence agencies to determine whether a man the U.S. government was seeking to deport had been a Nazi camp guard. He wasn’t and was cleared.
“He was a rabid anti-Semite, but that’s not against the law,” Sinai said.
These experiences, plus subsequent probes of environmental crimes and prison abuses, vaulted Sinai to one of the nation’s most controversial and costly transit programs. He promises 1996 will bring even more to light and he’s confident the turmoil that has knocked so many executives out of the agency won’t jar him.
“It’s high-risk fun,” he said. “This is not a young a man’s job.”
Copyright Daily News of Los Angeles