Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan defended his department's inquiries into a prominent disability rights activist's transportation arrangements yesterday, saying he needed to know whether the advocate was getting preferential treatment from a state contractor.
Flanagan said department officials had an obligation to ensure that Yellow Transportation Inc., a contractor that provides van and cab service for the disabled, wasn't providing service for Joel D. Myerberg that wasn't available to other riders.
The transportation chief stepped in to answer questions yesterday when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was asked at a news conference whether the department owed an apology to Myerberg, a guest of the governor at his State of the State address. Ehrlich did not answer the question.
The Sun reported yesterday that a department employee sent an e-mail Nov. 12 regarding Myerberg's movements in Annapolis and inquiring whether he was getting service that was being denied to other riders. Myerberg, founder and head of the Maryland Disabilities Forum, said he was hurt and insulted when he learned of the e-mail.
At the time of the inquiry, Myerberg was urging department officials and the Board of Public Works to keep Yellow as its Baltimore-area provider rather than award the $43 million contract to other firms.
"It became an issue for us when he came to us and started lobbying for Yellow Transportation," Flanagan said. "We have a duty to provide equal treatment to all paratransit customers."
That explanation did not sit well with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a board member and critic of the Maryland Transit Administration's handling of the contract award.
"I don't like this idea of checking on somebody. This is Big Brother stuff," Schaefer said. "Why pick on [Myerberg]? It's because he expressed his view that Yellow is good."
Yellow is challenging the MTA's decision to award the contract to Laidlaw Transit Services of Overland Park, Kan., and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif., before the state Board of Contract Appeals.
Myerberg, who is paralyzed from the chest down, said he traveled in a Yellow van to Annapolis on Nov. 6 to hold meetings with administration officials, including Deputy Transportation Secretary Trent M. Kittleman. Among the topics, he said, was the contract.
Rachael Gingrich, assistant to Kittleman, sent an e-mail to another department employee a few days later reporting on Myerberg's movements and raising concern that a Yellow driver waited for him in the State House during the meeting.
"That's very unusual. Paratransit drivers don't wait while their customers have their meetings," Flanagan said. The transportation secretary said the department did not take any action after its inquiries.
Myerberg said he recalls that his van driver waited outside with his vehicle and that he needed assistance from a state employee to get on an elevator. He said he believes officials were wasting taxpayers' money in an effort to discredit him.
"On their own personal time, they should apologize - not on state time," he said.
Myerberg said that although he is disappointed in Flanagan, those feelings do not extend to Ehrlich, who has visited him many times in his Pikesville home. "He's an amazingly good governor. He's a caring governor," Myerberg said.