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Governor seeks probe of VRE over ‘governance issues’

By Scott Shenk

The Virginia Railway Express is involved in yet another investigation that calls employee actions into question.

The issue came to light after Fredericksburg City Council member Fred Howe spoke about it at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“The governor has undertaken a review of VRE itself, due to some incidents, situations that have been through whistle-blowing, have come down the pike,” Howe, who also sits on the VRE Operations Board, said during Tuesday’s meeting. He said he was to be interviewed as part of the process.

Neither Howe nor VRE officials could be reached for comment.

Howe’s reference is apparently tied to an Oct. 3 letter from Gov. Bob McDonnell in which he asks for “a review of governance issues” at VRE. The letter, which cites “multiple sources,” including an auditor’s report and anonymous emails, was sent to the state’s auditor of public accounts and the inspector general.

This comes on the heels of an FBI investigation that snared a former VRE employee, who in September pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks for subcontracting work.

In the October letter about the current probe, the governor says there are “internal control issues,” primarily concerning a married couple who work for VRE—Sirel Mouchantaf, the commuter rail system’s director of engineering and construction, and Jennifer Mouchantaf, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission officer.

The governor’s letter says several employees wanted to report issues with Sirel Mouchantaf, but didn’t because they would have had to report to his wife.

The letter also raised questions about Sirel Mouchantaf running a separate construction business and multiple raises for VRE employees tied to the company. The letter also mentions an unaccounted-for $1,800 “rebar finder” bought by Sirel Mouchantaf as a VRE employee.

Sirel Mouchantaf and his wife also served on panels that helped in the process of selecting contractors for VRE work, the governor says in the letter.

And, lastly, McDonnell mentions in the letter a problem with a platform design at the Broad Run station that Sirel Mouchantaf was warned about but apparently ignored. A train later hit the platform, which had to be rebuilt, according to the letter.

The governor also mentions in the letter potential issues with CEO travel pay that wasn’t part of the contract.

The letter doesn’t mention him by name, but former VRE head Dale Zehner stepped down in July. VRE named Doug Allen as his replacement in September.

While talking about the situation at Tuesday’s council meeting, Howe signaled his support for VRE.

“I believe in the staff, I believe in the leadership and I believe in the truthfulness and the conduct of these folks,” he said. “Again, I have faith in VRE, the staff and leadership, that they will come through this.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

Chelyen Davis and Robyn Sidersky contributed to this report.