The Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station at 1365 Treat Boulevard in Walnut Creek, Calif. on March 5, 2021. (Samantha Laurey/Bay City News)

BART officials said this week that they are broadly in support of state legislation that would give the transit agency’s watchdog office more power over internal audits and investigations.

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, introduced Senate Bill 827 on Feb. 17. The bill would expand the scope of the Office of the Inspector General, allowing it to access all records, documents, accounts, reports, communication or other property of BART or its third-part contractors.

SB 827 would also make it a misdemeanor crime to obstruct the OIG, punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

If approved in its current form, the bill would bring BART’s OIG into closer alignment with the authority held by watchdog offices that oversee transit agencies like Caltrain and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as well as the California State Auditor.

“My staff and I are fully in support of SB 827 as a way to ensure that OIG has access to records when conducting audits and investigations,” BART Inspector General Harriet Richardson said Thursday to the agency’s Board of Directors during a presentation on the bill.

Thursday’s presentation came less than a week after Richardson informed the board, to which her office reports, that she will resign on March 17, months ahead of the end of her term in August.

Richardson has argued that BART management have obstructed the OIG’s efforts to monitor the agency since the office was created in 2018.

Independent investigators, as well as Glazer, have supported that assertion: a report last year by the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury found that BART’s OIG “is significantly underfunded and unable to fulfill its mission of uncovering waste, fraud and abuse.”

The budget for BART’s OIG has not changed from the $1 million annual budget with which it began.

The grand jury also argued in its report that the office is woefully understaffed with just three employees. That number will fall to two once Richardson departs.

By comparison, the grand jury noted, the inspector general’s offices at the LA Metro and Washington, D.C.’s transit agency have nearly 25 and nearly 45 employees, respectively.

BART disagreed in its official statement with all six of the grand jury’s findings that the inspector general’s office is underfunded, understaffed and regularly prevented by BART officials from properly conducting its mission as a watchdog.

On Thursday, BART Board President Janice Li said she intends to support efforts to strengthen the inspector general’s office and has already engaged with regional transit officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission about increasing the OIG’s budget to at least $2.7 million, if not more.

Li also said she intends to shepherd board approval later this year of a charter for the OIG to more clearly define how the office can and should operate, which both BART management and the inspector general’s office said has partially driven the tension between the two.

“There’s a lot that’s going on right now,” she said. “While I know that there have been frustrations and conversations had via media comments, I’m very forward looking and I really want to learn from these past failures and make structural changes and policy fixes to fully set up the Office of the Inspector General for success.”

Li also shied away from supporting the punitive elements of SB 827, arguing that she is generally not in favor of creating more criminalization.

However, Board Director Debora Allen, one of the OIG’s biggest proponents on the board, argued that the bill is still in its nascency and elements like possibly giving the OIG subpoena power and making it a crime to obstruct the office are likely to be negotiated or changed.

“I view that as … a minor part of this bill,” Allen said of the criminal penalties. “I know some people believe it’s the biggest hurdle but there are going to be conversations on bills like this, there are always conversations.”

BART officials plan to meet with Glazer in the coming weeks to discuss the bill. State legislators could begin committee discussions on SB 827 as soon as March 20, once it has been in print for at least 30 days.