State suspends JAUNT bus funding

A JAUNT bus featuring a Louisa Lion.

State officials suspended funding earlier this month for JAUNT, the bus service that serves Louisa County, while they investigate how the organization spent money on business trips in the U.S. and overseas.

The decision followed the resignation of former Chief Executive Officer Brad Sheffield in December amid news reports that he spent lavishly on first-class plane tickets, hotels and restaurants on trips to France and England in 2019 and 2020. Interim CEO Karen Davis accompanied Sheffield on at least one of the trips, according to the online news publication Charlottesville Tomorrow.

The state Department of Rail and Public Transportation said it is working with the Office of the Attorney General and Office of the State Inspector General to determine the appropriate next steps.

“While the review is still underway, the initial findings are troubling and show a disregard by agency leadership for operating in the best public interest,” said Haley Glynn, a DRPT spokesperson.

JAUNT has said it does not anticipate the situation will affect bus service.

Receipts released by JAUNT in response to a freedom of information request by Charlottesville Tomorrow show that Sheffield spent $7,275 on an Air France flight from New York to Paris. The ticket was for a private suite only available on certain planes. Sheffield also spent more than $11,000 on a week-long hotel stay in Las Vegas for him and colleagues.

Sheffield said there is nothing wrong with how the money was spent since it was from private contracts, not local, state or federal funding.

“My travel expenses as CEO are ordinary and reasonable for companies like Jaunt, particularly when it is an investment in growth and start-up opportunities,” he wrote on his personal website.

Louisa County Board of Supervisors member Willie Gentry (Cuckoo District) and another Louisa resident, Randy Parker, serve on the bus company’s board. Davis told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the board asked for Sheffield’s resignation when they were told about the issue in December.

The company’s auditors brought the expenses to the board’s attention after flagging them as unreasonable.

They said they were unable to determine if federal money was used to pay for any of the travel costs.

“While not unlawful, nor a prohibited use of government funds, the auditors determined that the expenditures were beyond what would have normally been expected for reasonable business expenses,” Jody Saunders, a JAUNT spokesman, said in a written statement.

Saunders said that after Davis took over as interim CEO, she implemented a requirement that the board preapprove executive expenses for training, conferences and travel.

JAUNT initially refused to respond to freedom of information requests from Charlottesville Tomorrow and Rob Schilling, a Charlottesville radio show host, arguing it was not a public entity and therefore not obligated to do so. Officials changed their minds after they were sued by Schilling.

JAUNT is registered as a public service corporation, a private company owned by the local governments in the areas it serves, including Louisa County. Fifty-six percent of its funding comes from local revenues, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow, with another 15 percent from the state and 24 percent from the federal government. The remainder is from fares.

The county gave JAUNT $294,027 in fiscal year 2021 to support operations and will give them the same amount in the budget year that begins on July 1, according to county Finance Director Wanda Colvin.

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