A disability rights advocate who was hailed in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s State of the State address said yesterday that he feels "hurt" and "insulted" after learning that Department of Transportation officials tracked his movements and questioned whether he was getting preferential treatment from a state contractor.
Joel D. Myerberg, head of the Maryland Disabilities Forum, said he was outraged by an e-mail in which the assistant to the No. 2 official of the department reported on his activities during a visit to Annapolis and questioned whether Yellow Transportation Inc. was giving him service it denies to others.
"I don't want to be followed. I'm not a criminal," said Myerberg, 57, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair because he is paralyzed from the upper chest down.
Department of Transportation officials raised questions about the services Myerberg receives after he opposed the Maryland Transit Administration's decision to award a $43 million transit contract to Laidlaw Transit Services of Overland Park, Kan., and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif.
The inquiry came as Myerberg, a friend of governors going back to the Harry R. Hughes administration, was lobbying the state Board of Public Works to retain Yellow Transportation Inc. as the MTA's provider of van and taxicab services for disabled people in the Baltimore region.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a board member who was shown the e-mail, said it shows that department officials were trying to investigate Myerberg.
"This e-mail indicates extraordinary effort, and I wonder whether it's appropriate," Kopp said. "It's almost like spying on your opponents."
Department spokesman Jack Cahalan rejected that characterization but defended officials' inquiries into the service provided Myerberg under the MTA's Mobility program. The program contracts with Yellow to provide van and taxicab service to the disabled.
"We were trying to find out what his travel arrangements were and whether they were the same that would be offered to any other Mobility customer," Cahalan said.
The spokesman said department officials were trying to determine how much weight to give Myerberg's advocacy on behalf of Yellow.
The e-mail came to light as part of Yellow's appeal of the MTA's choice of MV and Laidlaw to the state Board of Contract Appeals.
The appeal has turned up several examples of questionable conduct during the procurement, including an MTA official's recommendation of a lobbyist to a vendor and inappropriate communications between Laidlaw and members of the bid-evaluation committees.
Information provided to the board yesterday said the Nov. 12 e-mail was found in the electronic files of Ruth Silverstone, who was then the director of the MTA's Mobility program for the disabled.
The printout provided by the Department of Transportation to Yellow shows that Rachael Gingrich, special assistant to Deputy Secretary Trent Kittleman, sent e-mail to a department employee named Maggie relating that Myerberg visited the State House in Annapolis on Nov. 6.
"Yellow driver waited for him (on 2nd floor of the State House) during meeting," the e-mail reads. "Meeting concluded approximately 4:00, however Mr. Meyerberg [sic] did not leave until almost 4:30 (was speaking to Diane McComb, Gov's office)."
The note goes on to question whether Myerberg is receiving transportation services from the MTA or is a Yellow customer.
"Again, if he is not an MTA customer, its [sic] none of our business, but if he is, how much did he pay for the transportation ($1.85), and why was it provided to him when it is denied to others?" Gingrich wrote.
Instead of Maggie, Silverstone replied to Gingrich, telling the Kittleman aide to call her and adding, "I can answer your questions."
Mark Joseph, president of Yellow, said Myerberg is one of about 14,000 disabled people in the Baltimore contract who receive transportation services from Yellow under its contract with MTA.
Joseph denied Myerberg received service that was denied other disabled passengers. He said MTA officials never raised such questions before Myerberg opposed their choice of contractors.
The Yellow executive said Myerberg is entitled to transportation anywhere within the Mobility service area, which includes his Pikesville residence and Annapolis. He said $1.85 is the amount paid by all Mobility customers regardless of the distance or duration of the trip. Joseph added that it made sense for the driver to wait for Myerberg because of the distance of the trip back to Baltimore.
"It looks as though someone's trying to keep an eye on Mr. Myerberg's activities because of his advocacy in support of Yellow," said Joseph, who described Myerberg as a friend.
Myerberg, who has had multiple sclerosis since he was a college student, is a well-known activist who served on Ehrlich's transition team.
During his State of the State address, Ehrlich recognized Myerberg and praised him for his "long history of activism on behalf of people with disabilities."
Myerberg said he was "emotionally upset" over the e-mail because "these are people that know me."
"I've been working with MTA for years," he said. "I've been friends of theirs for years."
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor's office had no comment.
"There's not too much we can say about it," he said. "It's a matter that the Department of Transportation is handling."