STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News has learned that MARTA spent more than $2,600 on food for an employee meeting and farewell party at a time when the agency was facing massive financial problems.

Employees dined on shrimp, chicken, meatballs, spring rolls and more. The agency told Channel 2 Action News reporter Richard Belcher that senior managers approved it all.

Belcher discovered the information in an audit of purchase-card spending in MARTA’s information technology department. The catering costs were a tiny sliver of MARTA’s annual budget, but it was done when the agency was publicly worried about a shortfall of up to $60 million. There was even a report that MARTA was thinking about closing restrooms to save money.

The catering was provided by the Sycamore Grill in Stone Mountain for what MARTA’s order form called “staff meeting refreshments.”

The restaurant’s order form called it a “farewell party at MARTA headquarters” on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009.

The menu included grilled shrimp, crispy chicken, veggie spring rolls, bourbon meatballs and more.

The auditor questioned why the agency was paying for a retirement event. The transit agency said it was a mandatory I.T. meeting, not a retirement party, and it was approved by senior management. Officials said there were a couple of retirees recognized at the end of the event, but Belcher was told that was incidental.

Mike Bell was the chief financial officer for 20 years for DeKalb County, Fulton County and the city of Atlanta. He is now at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Bell said like every local government, MARTA is hurting now and was at the time of the catering expense. When asked about the public paying to feed public employees, Bell said normally a third party would be involved and it wouldn’t be a large group.

“But this was a very large group of people that apparently the event, or the function, took place at MARTA during working hours from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” said Bell.

Belcher asked Bell if he thought the menu was a good idea.

“Unless it’s a recurring type of event where there’s some kind of precedent, I would say no,” said Bell.

MARTA told Belcher that the agency’s policy governing credit cards neither expressly nor implicitly prohibits using the P-cards to purchase food for agency events, as long as management approves.

As Channel 2 previously reported, MARTA fired the top aide to general manager Beverly Scott in August because of suspected P-card abuses.

An outside auditor is investigating her expenses.