A freedom of information lawsuit filed against JAUNT is heading toward a settlement, according to court documents.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of local radio host Rob Schilling, who posted an article on his website in December claiming an anonymous internal source told him that the public transportation group was under investigation for “spending irregularities.” The article, which did not specify who is allegedly investigating JAUNT, claims the investigation was spurred by an agency audit.
Schilling’s request for documents under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act were denied by JAUNT, which claimed the organization was not subject to FOIA.
Filed soon after the denial in Charlottesville General District Court, Schilling’s lawsuit claims in part that JAUNT is subject to FOIA because it is a public body that is “wholly or principally” supported by public funds.
The biggest issue of contention was whether federal sources count, from which JAUNT receives around $5 million of its $12 million annual funding, according to Schilling’s filings. Though the organization has contested these funding specific figures, JAUNT did not deny that federal funding made up a significant portion of its budget.
A judge validated Schilling’s argument in February, allowing the lawsuit to continue and writing that federal funds do indeed count as public funds.
“The court cannot, on its own and without statutory authority or a binding opinion from a higher court, read into the statute a requirement that the term ‘public funds’ includes only Virginia state funds and excludes federal funds, and must instead apply a common sense meaning to the term,” Judge Matt Quatrara wrote.
A hearing had been set for Wednesday but, according to a letter sent to Quatrara on Wednesday by Schilling’s attorney, Matt Hardin, the parties asked for it to be continued in light of a recent settlement.
“The parties believe that they have reached an agreement in principle to resolve the instant dispute and have circulated a settlement agreement for signatures,” Hardin wrote.
“To that end, we would ask the Court to continue this matter until May 12 or 19 (whichever is more convenient for the Court), and for that date to serve as either another control date or as a date for entry of a final order disposing of this case (whichever is appropriate).”
Because the settlement has not been formally finalized, details were not available Wednesday.
The lawsuit is only part of the reason the paratransit agency has received attention in recent months.
Last month, the agency clarified that its board requested the former CEO’s resignation late last year after it was “no longer comfortable” with his “business judgment.” In a statement released along with its fiscal year 2020 audit, JAUNT said that former CEO Brad Sheffield “purchased numerous expenses for goods, services and travel which violated internal control policies of the corporation.”
Sheffield resigned in December. At the time, JAUNT board members declined to comment on his resignation. In a written statement last month, Sheffield said that no JAUNT policies were violated.
“All expenses during my tenure, including travel, adhered to JAUNT’s policies, and all expenses were reviewed prior to authorization,” said Sheffield, a former Albemarle County supervisor. “I took the job at JAUNT to contribute to the community that we all love and to improve transportation services for its most vulnerable members.”
Jody Saunders, director of public relations for JAUNT, declined to elaborate on the specifics of the “numerous expenses for goods, services and travel.”