New questions surround METRO

February 26, 2010 4:40:11 PM PST
We've learned a METRO employee met with Houston Mayor Annise Parker over the weekend to voice her concerns about the agency. Two days later, Pauline Higgins was fired. It's the latest development in the fallout from important documents being shredded now Mayor Parker is asking questions, too. METRO says it supports the mayor's call for an independent investigation regarding document shredding. That's what it may take to answer all the questions being asked and the allegations thrown.

It started as accusations of document shredding, but has turned into something bigger. On Thursday afternoon, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and METRO Chairman David Wolff both asked for a criminal investigation. But shredded papers now seem like just the beginning of the problems for METRO.

"All of the documents requested by Mr. Kelley on January 27 have been and are available," said David Wolff, Chairman of METRO.

Wolff is referring to documents requested by attorney Lloyd Kelley on a pending case. Wolff goes on to say the documents that were shredded earlier this week have nothing to do with what Kelley requested.

"It has not been compromised in any way whatsoever. Please get that straight," said Wolff.

But Lloyd Kelley is not convinced and spoke Thursday afternoon with his attorney regarding their request for this public information.

"The building of the subways in New York, we laugh at all the corruption. In LA, we laugh at all the corruption. It's not funny when it happens here and I don't want it to be a joke at the end of the day," said Kelley.

METRO still doesn't know what was destroyed, but says it wasn't anything illegal. On Wednesday, METRO's president said he could handle the investigation in house. On Thursday, his boss asked the mayor to bring in the district attorney.

Frank Wilson is the man in the middle of all this. He's METRO's president, and Lloyd Kelley said Wilson ordered documents to be shredded.

"They ordered the general counsel to destroy almost 18 boxes of records," said Kelley. "That order came from Frank Wilson. Why does he think he can do that?"

Wilson denies it. His boss, David Wolff does, too, and he is standing by Wilson.

"I think if they look at the work Frank Wilson has done, if they look at it with an open mind and they look at it in a professional way, they will be favorably impressed," said Wolff.

Mayor Parker, who will soon appoint a majority of METRO's board, does not.

"I think it's time for a change in leadership in both the board and administration at METRO," said Parker Thursday.

Parker wants the DA to look at the shredding. If documents Lloyd Kelley asked for were destroyed, that would be a crime.

Documents at the center of lawsuit

There are two groups of documents at issue in the lawsuit. It asks for four years worth of emails, travel documents and expense reports for METRO President Frank Wilson and his Chief of Staff Joanne Wright. It also asked for information on Wright's compensation. Wilson denies any improper relationship with Wright.

The second big group of documents relates to METRO's massive construction contract with the Parsons company. Last March, METRO awarded a $1.46 billion dollar contract, much of that to the Parsons Group.

METRO is currently defending at least one lawsuit over the light rail contract. Now it is likely more lawsuits will be added over the document shredding and METRO's lawyers who were fired around the time the shredding was discovered.

Two METRO attorneys fired, one resigns

There are also questions regarding the dismissal of METRO's General Counsel, Pauline Higgins. METRO claims Higgins was dismissed last week before they were aware of any document shredding.

Eyewitness News has also learned that Mayor Parker met with Higgins regarding her concerns with METRO over the weekend, just a couple of days before she was fired.

Attorney Rusty Hardin is representing the former METRO employee and he says for more than a year Higgins had been trying to get METRO to adopt a document retention policy, but claims when she went to METRO CEO Frank Wilson, he was reluctant.

"I know Pauline Higgins has had some concern for some time to make sure that there was a firm, up-to-date document retention policy. I know that Mr. Kelley made an open records request, and I know that the response to that was moved out of Ms. Higgins responsibility. One can only ask, why?" said Hardin.

METRO on Friday released the name of the second attorney terminated. Jakki Hansen was not terminated for shredding documents, METRO says, rather it was "during her exit interview on February 23 after the decision was made to dismiss her and during the implementation of that decision, that METRO learned that documents had been shredded."

The agency also said another legal department attorney, C Gibson, communicated that he planned to resign effective February 24 to begin work for another employer.

Mayor Parker said her own transition team has had issues with document requests.

"I support light rail. I don't want to do anything that would endanger our relationship with the federal agencies that we hope will fund the expansion of our program, but we're going to do it right," said Mayor Parker.

A hearing for the case Kelley requested the documents for is scheduled next week. The District Attorney's Office won't comment on any involvement they may or may not have.

It is certainly big news these days, but for METRO, more importantly a huge distraction. The agency is in the final stages of trying to convince the feds to fund hundreds of millions in construction dollars for new light rail lines. Criminal investigations over document shredding can't help.