Johnny Cash once recorded a country song called "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Maybe Hill Air Force Base could consider a new version, "Ghost Riders in Our Van Pools."

In the Cash version, ghosts tell a cowboy to change or face an eternity in hell chasing a ghost herd. In the Hill version, inspectors tell the base it made a heck of a mistake by throwing away cash on an apparent herd of "ghosts" it erroneously assumed were riding in Utah Transit Authority van pools and buses.

Problems came from such things as continuing to pay for people who had moved, not spotting that some van pools claimed to have more riders than could actually fit in the vans (later spot-checks would find most were actually less than half-full), and not noticing some people claimed to ride in both vans and buses at the same time.

As Cash might have said about the stinging findings, "Yippee ki-ohhhh."

All that unnecessarily cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to U.S. Air Force Audit Agency reports written last year but just obtained by the Deseret News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Barbara Hanlin, director of manpower and personnel at the base, said the problems found by auditors have been corrected. She said that the base has "hired a full-time employee to oversee the UTA program, establish an improved process and address the issues discovered in the audit."

She added, "All ineligible individuals have been removed from the program, and an improved application process is now in place. The discrepancies have been corrected, and the audit is closed."

Because of the large number of participants, auditors wrote that they decided to look at how Hill handles a program set up by Congress to pay for employees' mass transit system bus passes or van pools. For example, it said records showed that 1,100 base employees rode in 124 vans leased from the UTA.

But auditors quickly found that 120 van-pool vouchers were issued each month either for "ghosts" who did not actually ride in vans or for contractors who did not qualify for the program that is for Air Force employees only.

Reports said that "104 individuals had retired, resigned or relocated," which is enough "ghost riders" to fill seven 15-passenger vans.

Besides that, auditors wrote, "12 individuals' names appeared in the DOT (Department of Transportation) records twice," so two vouchers were being issued each month for them instead of one. And "four contractor personnel who were not eligible for fare media" were receiving them anyway.

Auditors also noted that officials overseeing the program at Hill had not noticed that "14 van pools had more applicants assigned than the van seating capacity could accommodate." Hill allowed van drivers to pick up vouchers for everyone supposedly in their group, rather than making each individual sign for them.

Auditors said the 120 unnecessary van-pool vouchers issued monthly were costing $11,134 a month — about $133,000 a year.

And auditors said the Air Force appeared to be paying too much even for many of the real riders who qualified for the program.

Van-pool vouchers are not supposed to exceed actual commuting costs. But a "review of all van pools revealed that 73 percent received the maximum subsidy allowed regardless if the vans originated 90 miles from the base, or just outside the base gates," a report said.

For example, auditors said participants in one van pool that traveled only about two to four miles from the base "received $105 in vouchers per person each month." Meanwhile, those in another van pool traveling from about six miles away "received $60 per person per month," suggesting the first group and others like it were overpaid.

Auditors also found a few people were receiving both van-pool vouchers and bus passes at the same time. That is allowed only if the total subsidy does not exceed $110 a month. But auditors said they found 13 people who participated in both receiving "combined transportation subsidies of $140 to $155 per month."

Auditors also noted that under Internal Revenue Service rules for tax-free subsidies of van pools, the capacity of each van should be half-filled, not counting the driver. Auditors randomly stopped 91 vans last July, from one to five times each, and found most vans were much more empty than that.

"Of the 91 vans stopped, only 25 percent met the IRS requirements for qualified van pools during at least one of those stops," auditors wrote.

Auditors also found that Hill did not return excess van-pool vouchers or unused bus passes to the Department of Transportation for credit or refund, as is allowed — but base officials said they did not realize that was possible.

During the audit, "the $245,315 in excess (van-pool) vouchers (still found on hand) was returned to the DOT for credit," a report said.

But the Air Force lost out on the value of unused bus passes that it failed to return because they expire and lose value after the fifth day of each month, reports said.

Auditors said 19 percent of the passes bought from January through June of 2007 had never been picked up by the employees for whom they were purchased — costing the Air Force about $2,700. Auditors said Hill should send any bus passes not picked up by the fourth day of each month by express mail to the Department of Transportation for credit.

Auditors also complained Hill had kept van-pool vouchers and bus passes in insecure areas where they easily could have been stolen.

Reports blamed most of the problems on Hill turning its oversight of the program over to the UTA, which had an employee on base part-time to handle applications and distribution of transportation fare.

They recommended hiring an Air Force employee to handle the program, verify participation lists monthly, verify qualification of participants and oversee occasional spot checks of van-pool compliance. Hill accepted and implemented those recommendations.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com