Burning Atlanta

Things have been going well for Municipal Transportation Agency executive director Nathaniel "Nat" Ford since he came to San Francisco. Last month he became the highest-paid city employee at $315,000 — not including bonuses — even though taxpayers say the city's troubled bus service has declined since he took over, according to a survey released in April.

While Ford's fortunes have flourished in San Francisco, his spending habits back in Georgia have damaged the credibility of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), where he was director from 2001 to 2005, according to Georgia Congresswoman Jill Chambers.

Shortly after Ford left Atlanta for San Francisco, a MARTA auditor discovered a couple of credit cards that nobody knew about with $150,000 in charges on them. Over a five-year period, Ford and his secretaries had used the cards to pay for business-related expenses, including flying first class, eating at fine restaurants, and quaffing top-shelf liquors. Ford also racked up charges for purely personal items such as $450 at a golf pro shop, $335 at Men's Wearhouse, and $58 for dental work.

A congressional oversight committee asked for a full audit of Ford's spending, which proved difficult because he had taken many of his records with him. Nonetheless, the MARTA board of directors voted to let Ford off the hook without a thorough investigation.

Chambers, who chairs the oversight committee, was outraged. "The board voted to regard the $150,000 in credit card charges as business expenses," she says. "I was very disappointed with the decision on what was blatant abuse of a credit card privilege."

The board's decision to look the other way will taint the agency's credibility, Chambers says, as it undergoes a massive restructuring toward a regional system that will result in the consolidation of billions of tax dollars under the MARTA board's control.

Municipal Transportation Agency spokesman Alan Siegel said Ford was on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. He added that Ford had answered all questions to the satisfaction of the MARTA board and that the issue has nothing to do with his job in San Francisco.

Meanwhile Chambers has reported the expenditures to the Georgia Department of Revenue as a possible 1099 issue. "That could mean Mr. Ford will have to pay taxes on the money," she says.

 
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