CITY HALL — Three employees with Big Blue Bus face criminal charges for allegedly abusing a rideshare program that provides free public transit passes to city employees who pledge to leave their cars at home.

Following a random internal audit of the program, City Hall’s Finance Department discovered irregularities in applications for the free passes as well as a lack of effective internal controls to guard against fraud, said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager, community and government relations.

As a result, City Manager Lamont Ewell called for a full investigation on behalf of the Santa Monica Police Department. The investigation was initiated March 2.

Three BBB employees were arrested Wednesday. They were identified as Crystal L. Buckner, 46, of Fullerton, a motor coach operator supervisor; Michael L. Brown, 49, of Inglewood, a motor coach operator; and Kalin J. Green, 36, of Encino, a transit operations assistant. Buckner and Green were both booked for grand theft, Brown for petty theft.

“This is really unfortunate because it is a good program and these three people used it inappropriately,” Vernez said. “Whether it’s a dollar or a thousand dollars, when it comes to public funds the city takes these matters very seriously and now the courts will review the case.”

The three employees are expected to be arraigned at the LAX Courthouse this week.

Vernez would not comment further on the arrests.

The employees have been placed on administrative leave.

City Hall has been conducting random audits of the rideshare program for the last two-and-a-half years. The rideshare program is in its 10th year and is meant to reduce carbon emissions, Vernez said.

Only full-time employees and as-needed employees with six months or more of continuous employment are eligible for the program.

A benefit is a free EZ transit pass that allows users to ride almost any bus or train in L.A. County. The passes are valued at $70 and must be renewed each month. For seniors, the disabled and Medicare riders the pass is $35, according to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Web site.

In addition to the EZ passes, City Hall also enforces Ordinance 1604, which promotes ridesharing.

Employers in Santa Monica with 10 to 49 employees are required to provide each of their workers with information about ridesharing, educating their employees about air quality issues and alternatives to driving to work.

Under the ordinance employers of 50 or more people, including City Hall, offer incentives to get employees out of their cars. A yearly survey tracks each employer’s progress in reducing drive-alone trips, according to City Hall’s Web site.

City Hall also has a mandatory Parking Cash Out Program created by a state law requiring employers of 50 or more people who lease their parking and subsidize any part of their employee parking to offer workers the opportunity to give up their spaces and rideshare to work. In exchange, the employer pays the employee the cost of the parking space.

City Hall also promotes clean air events like Bike to Work Week, Rideshare Week, Clean Air Month, Try Transit Week and Walk to Work Week.

Under the Sustainable City Plan, City Hall’s goal is to increase the average vehicle ridership to 1.5. In 2008 that goal was surpassed with a 1.6 average.

kevinh@smdp.com