Rogue toll-takers deployed a low-technology scheme to steal thousands of dollars from the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, skimming quarters and dollars from the taxicabs and other vehicles that passed by their booths near Logan International Airport, prosecutors said yesterday.
On the most profitable shifts, a toll-taker could take home an extra $150, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said. On less lucrative days, the loose change and dollar bills added up to only $20.
Over a three-month period, the 10 toll-takers were observed on camera stealing a total of $5,000 to $10,000, Conley's office said. They were charged yesterday with larceny and fraudulent record keeping, which is a felony. Authorities said they do not know how long the employees were skimming money and how much ultimately was stolen from the financially struggling Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.
Though the known dollar figures were relatively low, the risk in public confidence was high, authorities said.
"This was the very definition of a violation of the public trust," Conley said.
The head of the union representing toll-takers could not be reached for comment yesterday afternoon.
Turnpike Authority officials tipped off State Police to the potential problem in October, prompting a State Police investiga tion. All 10 toll-takers charged work at the Sumner and Ted Williams tunnels connecting the city to Logan Airport.
At those tunnels, taxicabs pay a higher rate than passenger vehicles. The toll-takers are supposed to press one of several buttons in the booth for each vehicle that passes, indicating whether it is a car, cab, or other kind of vehicle. Cabs pay $5.25, while cars pay $3.50. Before Jan. 1, the rates were $4.50 and $3, respectively.
Conley said the workers would charge the cab full fare, press the button for passenger cars, and then pocket the difference. In other cases, they would let two cars pass, but only press the button once, he said.
The toll booths near the airport are the easiest to skim from, because they rely on toll-takers to press buttons to differentiate cabs and regular cars. Other booths along the Pike do not charge separate rates for cabs. The same scheme could not be used for tractor-trailers, which are charged for each axle, because the Pike has trundles on the ground that detect how many axles are passing.
The Turnpike Authority has some controls in place at the airport tunnels, including cameras that record vehicles as they pass the booths and daily reports on how much money is collected. But the authority's executive director, Alan LeBovidge, said those controls were not being used in the past.
"If you're not checking, you don't know," he said.
But, LeBovidge added, "there's always an issue when cash is involved in any transaction, any retail transaction."
LeBovidge said that he was uncertain how long the skimming had occurred, but that it could not have started before 1995, when the Ted Williams Tunnel opened and officials began charging a separate rate for cabs. LeBovidge said the 10 workers were placed on unpaid suspension. Their boss, Bob Cole, was fired earlier this year, though not accused of a crime.
LeBovidge said several changes should prevent further theft.
This month, Boston police began enforcing a rule that cab drivers use the Fast Lane pass, limiting the chance for fraud by eliminating the human factor. The Turnpike Authority is also retraining toll-takers, with an emphasis on ethics and whistle-blowing, and adding stricter discipline, said Mac Daniel, a spokesman for the authority.
Finally, LeBovidge has added a new department in charge of analyzing toll data and reviewing video to detect fraud. Still, the authority has not moved as quickly as other toll agencies in persuading drivers to pay electronically. About 60 percent of the money collected at the Logan tolls comes in cash, Daniel said.
The authority had planned to upgrade its electronic toll system, with technology that might have encouraged more drivers to buy Fast Lane transponders, but that effort was canceled for a second time last week because the authority cannot afford it. The lowest bid came in at $30 million, LeBovidge said.
Donna Blythe-Shaw, a United Steelworkers official who represents Boston taxi drivers, said the crackdown was another case of taxis being caught in the middle of a problem.
"We find it very unfortunate for the families of those workers and for them," she said. "We hope that the system . . . can find a better system for toll-taking, for accounting for tolls, and not to just issue mandates that really don't solve the problems and cause individuals and particularly in this case taxi drivers, a hardship."
Bob Turner, 64, who said he has been driving cabs for 15 years, said the scheme was well known to drivers.
Turner said that during one recent trip through a toll booth for one of the tunnels, the lighted display said $3.50, but the toll-taker collected the $5.25 taxi fare. Turner asked the toll-taker if she could explain to his passenger why he had to charge her $5.25, when the display showed the lesser price. "She said, 'It's not working.' I said, 'So why is it open?' She had no answer," he said.
He said he has tried to "beat them at their own game" by asking for a receipt, forcing them to record the correct price. The receipts, however, display the date but not the time.
"So, frequently, you'll notice that they have printed out four or five of these [receipts], so that they're stuck in the door frame of the booths, so that they're ready to go," he said.
The simple solution to the thefts, Turner said, is to charge taxis the same price as any other sedan at the tunnel tolls, as they do at every other toll on the Pike. The men charged in the scheme range in tenure from eight months to 29 years at the Pike. Eight were full-time employees and earned an average of $53,000 a year, not including overtime. The two part-timers made an average of $38,000, Daniel said.
Stephen Golisano, 35, of East Boston, was charged with three misdemeanor counts of larceny under $250 and three felony counts of false entry on corporate books. He said he quit on May 1, because of plans to move to California to be with his daughter. He said that his legal summons showed only one charge and that it was probably an accident, rather than an attempt to steal.
"It's not that I was trying to skim the money," he said. "It's just that I hit the wrong button, trying to make the traffic quick."
He said the lines back up and toll takers work fast so as not to upset the public.
"We make enough money there," he said. "We don't need their money."
Efforts were made to reach the others charged, identified by authorities as King Chan, 50, of Wellesley; Joseph Fermino, 56, of Quincy; Paul Iacobacci, 48 of Everett; David Jones, 47 of Dorchester; Steven Lorina, 53, of Buzzards Bay; Tony Pasuy, 35, of Lynn; Hartley Riley, 67, of Roxbury; Justin W. Ruggiero, 27, of Bradford; Cheung Wan, 67, of Randolph.
Globe correspondents Matt Collette and Jillian Jorgensen contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.