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Ex-SEPTA managers took cash, rare coins, and even a puppy in a fraud scheme that cost the agency nearly $1M, feds say

Prosecutors said the managers accepted thousands of dollars in bribes and used agency credit cards and corrupt deals with vendors to obtain cash, rare coins and ATV equipment for personal use.

SEPTA vehicles in front of headquarters at 1234 Market St. in Center City Philadelphia photographed in August 2020.
SEPTA vehicles in front of headquarters at 1234 Market St. in Center City Philadelphia photographed in August 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Seven former SEPTA maintenance managers were federally charged Wednesday with bilking the transit agency out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by colluding with vendors to charge for goods that were never provided and pocketing the proceeds.

Federal prosecutors said the managers — including two past top-level heads of the agency’s Bridges and Buildings Department — received cash bribes and personal goods including hunting supplies, ATV equipment, rare gold coins, and even a whippet puppy in exchange for facilitating the scheme.

In all, the arrangement cost SEPTA more than $870,000 between 2013 and 2019 and cast doubt on the agency’s financial safeguards, which officials were quick to stress Wednesday originally caught the fraud, prompting an internal probe that was shared with the FBI.

“Philadelphians deserve public employees who do their jobs honestly, without gaming the system to line their own pockets,” acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said in announcing the charges. “At a time when SEPTA is facing significant challenges to continue faithfully serving its riders, many of whom have no other reliable, cost-effective transportation options, the defendants’ alleged actions perpetrating this fraud scheme are the definition of selfish greed.”

According to court filings, the scheme began under David Abell, SEPTA’s former senior director for maintenance, who in 2013 approached two trusted vendors — Mark Irvello, owner of MSI Tool & Repair Supply in Upper Darby, and Stanley Woloff, who owns Advantage Industrial Supply in Philadelphia — with a deal that could benefit them all:

If they would provide him with bribes of $1,000 to $2,000 a month plus occasional other gifts, Abell would steer legitimate SEPTA business their way and allow them to charge the expense of paying him off, plus kickbacks for themselves, to the transit agency on credit cards SEPTA issued to managers for emergency expenses.

Prosecutors said that when Abell, now 72, retired in June 2015 he not only trained his replacement — Rodney Martinez — to take over as senior maintenance director but also on how to defraud their employer.

Irvello and Woloff, who were also charged Wednesday, allegedly continued to pay bribes to Abell and Martinez for years, which they charged back to the agency disguised as the cost of legitimate goods.

Between 2015 and 2019 they expanded the breadth of their graft, investigators said, by adding nine other managers to their list of paid-off employees — including four who remained unnamed and uncharged in the case unveiled Wednesday. Prosecutors declined to identify the men or discuss their involvement.

As for the others, Jesse Fleck, a former director of maintenance, was charged with receiving at least $7,000 in personal goods including hunting equipment, auto parts, and a Yeti cooler. Maintenance managers Peter Brauner and John Brady allegedly took home a combined $31,700 in personal goods including backhoe equipment, TVs, and auto and camera parts.

And his colleague James Turner received a refrigerator, a clothes dryer, an Xbox, a whippet puppy, and a pair of UGG slippers, among other goods, according to court documents in his case. The total price tag? $20,400.

But by far one of the scheme’s largest alleged beneficiaries was Stephen Kish, a director of maintenance who was given cash payments and $215,000 worth of gold bullion and rare gold coins, which he later resold, authorities say.

He retired from the agency in 2019 as an investigation into the theft took hold. SEPTA officials said another maintenance department employee alerted auditors and the agency’s inspector general to the scheme, prompting an internal investigation.

» READ MORE: FBI is investigating workers who misused funds at SEPTA

Kish, 65, of Philadelphia, now faces charges of theft, wire fraud, and money laundering — tied to his purchase of a property in Easton with some of the money he earned from reselling the coins.

The other managers face theft and wire-fraud charges that could send them to prison for up to 20 years on the most serious count. Abell, 72, of Chicoteague Island, Va., and Martinez, 50, of Blackwood, also face bribery counts.

All of the managers have since retired, resigned, or left the agency and waived their right to have their case heard by a grand jury — a decision that typically indicates they have agreed to plead guilty.

Lawyers for Brauner and Irvello confirmed Wednesday that their clients intended to admit their wrongdoing in court.

“He’s a good man that made some bad decisions,” Irvello’s attorney, Mark Much, said.

Gregory Pagano, lawyer for Brauner, said his client was prepared to accept the consequences and pay SEPTA back for the money he defrauded from the agency.

Attorneys representing the other charged defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

Upon conviction, the former employees will forfeit any pension benefits they have earned, agency officials say.

In Abell’s case, that means a loss of more than $5,000 in monthly payments after he retired on a $109,000 annual salary. Martinez resigned April 2 and is too young to draw a pension.

Since completing its own investigation, SEPTA has instituted reforms, spokesperson Andrew Busch said. Those include restricting the number of employees authorized to use agency credit cards, and expanding the use of contracts for commonly needed items such as welding, electrical, and plumbing equipment, to reduce the need to buy those supplies with the cards.

“As we look to position SEPTA for success in the future, we are focused on our own accountability,” SEPTA board chairman Pasquale “Pat” Deon and CEO Leslie S. Richards said in an email to employees about the charges. “While these cases do not represent who we are as an organization, we acknowledge where we have fallen short, and we are confident we have addressed these issues.”