HART Board extends CEO David Armijo's paid leave listen04/04/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Hillsborough Countyâ€™s top transit official is facing tough scrutiny in the wake of accusations of misconduct ranging from retaliation against whistleblowers and misuse of travel funds. Today the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board placed agency CEO David Armijo on two more weeks of paid leave while they try to figure out whether or not to keep him on board.
The complaints came back in February. Two weeks ago the board voted to suspend HART CEO David Armijo with pay when national employment law firm Ford and Harrison launched its investigation of the agency head. Today, Ford and Harrison attorney Dawn Siler-Nixon said the firm found several areas in which misconduct was possible.
"Action that was taken through restructuring towards the reporting employees and others and their direct line of authority or control that were close in time to the report and/or objection. Second; approval and/or notification requirements by or to the board or board chair were not sought or received. Third; policies, contractual provisions or procedures, internal procedures were not followed relating to accrued leave, personal time and business expenses."
She also listed going against hiring policies among possible misconduct. This year, three anonymous individuals filed written complaints that those who questioned company policy face losing their jobs. There have reportedly been twelve such cases since 2008. Siler-Nixon said another concern is the bad morale that practice might breed within the transit agency.
"Our investigation also revealed an overall tense and fearful climate as a result of the feelings of the employees and the '...' action has been previously noted."
HART Board member Kevin Beckner, a strong advocate of mass transit, said morale among agency employees is among his biggest concerns.
"To be honest with you, the larger concern is the hostile work environment that I think that is certainly here. It'd be one thing if we had a single employee coming forward with an allegation, but when you have three, and potentially then nine others that are making similar allegations, that goes beyond coincidence for me."
Board member Mark Sharpe said promoting a fearful climate within any workplace is unacceptable.
"Whether you're the president of the United States, the CEO of an organization or a board member and a staff member says, 'I have concern. I don't think that we're following the procedures correctly.' That staff member, even if they're dead wrong, should never, ever find themselves or their job in jeopardy."
Another key allegation is one accusing Armijo of not following company procedure when it came to travel expenses, something Armijo said he could easily straighten out if the firm lets him read the complaint. Sharpe said the two more weeks of paid leave will give him and his colleagues a chance to conduct a badly-needed review of the complaints.
"I've said all along that I've got great respect for Mr. Armijo. I think he's done a very good job in difficult circumstances, has been able to take an agency which has lost significant amount of money and made it work and work efficiently and effectively, but I also have grave concerns from what I've heard and that's what I want to review."
Armijo denied that the work environment at HART was hostile, and said Ford and Harrison has been making it tough for him to substantially respond to the accusations since they wonâ€™t get into specifics of the complaints.
"The documentation was requested. My attorney requested it of the law firm of Ford and Harrison and they were denied. Consequently for the last week to two weeks I've been trying to get information. I don't believe that there's clarity in these allegations. I believe that the opportunity to address the financial ones, which is travel, will be resolved fairly quickly. Because I don't believe there is any problem with the travel especially in the most recent two trips I took, but there is a process and a process to go through that. I don't have that documentation, I don't even have access to my calendar."
Attorney Dawn Siler-Nixon told the board that are strict state whistleblower protection laws keep the complaints private.
"You need to keep in mind the requirements of your whistleblower law, your whistleblower policy as well as the applicable law that the complaintants allegations be kept as confidential as possible, as well as the complaintants names should not be revealed because that will only lead to the potential for retaliation and then the potential for a lawsuit."
The board voted to place Armijo on two more weeks of paid leave, with the hope of arranging one-on-one meetings between Armijo and each board member. Board member Sandy Murman said the process of reviewing the complaints against Armijo has been inappropriately rushed.
"We need a very thorough, thoughtful review of all these allegations and I wish we had had more time to study them but it has been a very rushed process for me."
The investigation comes amid a climate of strong distrust of government as well as HARTâ€™s attempt to resuscitate its proposed transit overhaul plan, which would include rail. Some have claimed that race is at play. Most of the people calling for Armijoâ€™s ouster are African-American, and Armijo is Latino.