Cindy Howe, former Executive Director of the Sunset Empire Transportation District entered an Alford plea in a Clatsop County courtroom Tuesday morning and was sentenced to perform 240 hours of community service, pay back nearly $8000.00 to the district and read an apology in court. According to District Attorney Josh Marquis, an Alford plea is a guilty plea in every way but allows the defendant to say they are only entering the plea to take advantage of the plea offer.
Marquis told KAST News that Howe was indicted on 10 theft counts (four involving cruises) and four counts of Official Misconduct. He says Howe secured employment back east and retained two attorneys, one local and another based in Portland. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that a Guilty/Alford plea would be entered to Count 1 of Theft 1 - with immediate misdemeanor treatment and one count of Official Misconduct. Howe is on bench probation for 2 years, must make restitution for all four cruises to SETD totaling almost $8000 and perform 240 hours of community service in lieu of thirty days in jail. Howe made a statement that her "grasp exceeded her reach" and she was sorry for the problems at SETD. Marquis stated "I spoke last and said that what she gave was not an apology, that she had been greedy and stolen, but my office agreed to this deal because she had been a contributing member of the community with no criminal record and that while the crash of SETD was NOT the result of criminal conduct by Howe, the mismanagement by her and the board had deprived many people of their jobs and people of much-needed public transportation.
Howe served as the Executive Director for the transportation district for many years and during that time developed a number of fixed routes, established dial-a-ride, ADA Para-transit, and operated the N.W Ride center. An HR dispute with a former employee led the district board to an investigation of Howe's practises with employees in December of 2010. The board hired a outside firm, HR Answers, to perform an investigation and it was following a closed door session with a representative of the company that Howe was placed on paid administrative leave. The initial report from HR Answers touched on some administrative activities that sparked the employee complaint. Howe was placed on leave until the final report would be available. It was also revealed at that January 6, 2011 board meeting that Howe had already submitted her letter of resignation days before according to then chairman Ron Bline, claiming that she had lost the confidence of the board which she stated at the time was the same as a board member asking for her resignation. Howe's agreement with the district stated that in the event she was asked to resign the district would agree to pay her six months severance. The board moved instead to reject the letter of resignation and placed Howe on administrative leave for an undetermined period of time until they received and reviewed the completed report from HR Answers. The district board sought help from the Special Districts Association and appointed a interim Director who began the process of shifting through the District finances. Shortly after that it was found the district was in severe financial trouble. It was reported that there was a cash deficit of $194,550 and that the district was in arrears some $200,000 to the Special Districts Association for medical insurance for the district employees. It was further revealed that while the district board had thought that the district owned many of the buses and other equipment, in fact most of the fleet was actually owned by the state and those buses that the district did own had already been used as equity in an apparent attempt to the keep the district afloat. Reportedly, Howe as the budget officer had counted on grants that were not received to balance her budget. It was also found the funds intended for the operation of the Northwest Ride center had been improperly combined with the general operations funds budget. On reporting that information the district found itself even further in debt because of the requirement to pay back any money that was found to be improperly used.
After reviewing the district's position the interim director and the financial officer supplied by the Special District Association recommended drastic cuts in employees and the elimination of all but two fixed routes. The district board agreed after hearing impassioned testimony from many residents who said they were solely dependent on the bus service.
In April of 2011 District Attorney Josh Marquis turned to the Attorney General's office to assist with the investigation and at that time told KAST news he did so because the AG would have more resources to conduct an investigation into whether or not Howe should be charged with any crime, or in fact whether or not any crime had actually occurred. The DA did provide logistical support to the AG's office which became special deputies in this case. Marquis said his office would not be making any decisions, or signing any court documents related to the potential case. Marquis says "in 2012 it became clear that while the AG was doing all the investigation the DA's office would present the case to the Grand Jury which I did. She was indicted on 10 thefts counts (four involving cruises) and four counts of Official Misconduct."
As the investigation began certain potential irregularities on Howe's part came to light. There was suspicion she had used district buses and personnel to provide favors in the form of free transportation to local outside organizations she had involvement with and questions arose about her advertising practises. It was suspected that Howe had accepted cruise vacations from a former radio station company in exchange for buying advertising on that company's radio stations. The company had used this method to promote ad sales with it's top clients which is not considered an unusual practice but came into question in Howe's case since she represented a public body and apparently did not have the approval of her board to accept the cruise vacations personally. Questions also arose about Howe's use of a district credit card for personal expenses.
The Sunset Empire Transportation District today is healthy but considerably smaller. Some routes have been restored but it is unlikely that all routes and services will ever come back. Moving forward, Executive Director Jay Flint told KAST news that the transportation district is in the process of re-making itself to better serve the county and continues to analyze what services and routes are most crucial.