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HART chief executive faces showdown over whistle-blowers' allegations

TAMPA — Hostile and defensive, with a nasty temper.

That's how David Persaud describes David Armijo, his former boss at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

"It's his way or the highway — that's what he says," said Persaud, HART's chief financial officer when Armijo arrived as chief executive officer in 2007.

Now, because of complaints from Persaud and two other whistle-blowers, Armijo has spent nearly a month suspended with pay from his $185,000-a-year job running the county's bus system.

On Monday, HART's board will discuss the investigation by an outside attorney that found a "tense and fearful climate."

HART employees have complained about being demoted for speaking their minds. Also at issue: Armijo's travel, hiring and use of leave time.

Armijo defends his leadership. Good teamwork at HART has fueled widespread success, he said in a recent interview.

Property tax revenues have dropped $8 million since he arrived, but HART has replaced a third of its buses, given its fleet a fresh look, revised schedules and doubled the number of bus stops while attracting more riders.

"You do that with a team that has poor morale?" Armijo said. "I don't think so."

Others tell a different story.

Persaud said that after he questioned some of Armijo's decisions, including hiring people for positions not in the budget, his job was reclassified. He went from chief financial officer to finance director. He lost responsibilities. And his pay dropped more than $24,000 a year.

When Persaud quit in January, he said Armijo offered him a severance agreement that would have paid him to keep quiet. He declined.

"He made my life miserable," said Persaud, now the director of finance at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Former HART executive Steven Roberts, not one of the whistle-blowers interviewed by the outside attorney, tells a similar story.

Roberts had worked for HART for nearly 25 years, rising to general manager of operations and even interim director.

Things with Armijo went well at first, Roberts said. Then Armijo took him to task over a personnel decision that Roberts said he had the right, authority and good reason to make.

"Mr. Armijo became agitated, raised his voice and told me not to take any action in the future without checking with him first," Roberts said in a recent e-mail to members of HART's board.

Soon after, Roberts said, Armijo had a problem when a union leader complained to HART's board about Armijo and another official but praised Roberts, who had expressed sympathy to her about a death in her family.

In a closed-door meeting, Armijo "angrily stated he wanted me to be loyal to HIM, NOT HART," Roberts said in his e-mail.

A former Marine, Roberts said he was loyal but told Armijo he would not lie or go to jail for him.

"He told me I just didn't get it, and he wanted to change the operations department leadership," Roberts said. After that, he said, he was made director of special projects, a job eliminated several months later.

Former director of government affairs and community relations Ed Crawford said he ran afoul of Armijo after trying to cultivate good relations with officials in Hillsborough County and other agencies expected to be involved in last November's transit referendum.

"I was told flat out, 'You're not to go to those meetings. You're not to talk to those people,' " Crawford said.

His job was restructured, and his pay was cut.

"I had to look for things to do because I wasn't being given any assignments," he said. He eventually quit. A severance agreement gave him 4 1/2 months' pay but required him not to disparage HART or its leaders.

The outside attorney's investigation said Armijo has ordered 10 staff reorganizations.

It was three, Armijo said, and always to enhance efficiency and save money.

County Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe said he has "strong concerns" about HART's working environment.

Armijo improved what had been a struggling agency, Sharpe said, and he knows a lot about HART and transit generally. But as money gets even tighter, employees must feel respected and safe to offer their own ideas.

"That's, for me, the crux of the matter," Sharpe said.

•••

On travel and leave time, Armijo said he believes he has followed HART policies.

Armijo cashed out 80 hours of vacation time in February 2009 and another 80 in January 2010, records show. At the time, he made $83.99 per hour, yielding $6,700-plus for each 80 hours.

HART allows payouts of unused vacation time, but employees must apply for them at the end of the fiscal year.

"What is the issue?" Armijo said. "Is it because I took it at the beginning of the year instead of the end of the year because I didn't know? These are questions that could be answered simply. They don't rise to the level of suspension or termination."

HART records show that Armijo has been reimbursed for 40-plus business trips since his hiring in September 2007.

Eight were to Southern California, where Armijo previously worked and where his wife lives.

Armijo said all of his travel was for official business. Many of the California trips were for the American Public Transportation Association or Federal Transit Administration meetings.

"I never saw any expenses that did not seem logical," said Temple Terrace City Council member Ron Govin, who reviewed Armijo's travel vouchers when he was HART's chairman.

If anything, Armijo said, he might have cut a trip to San Diego from four days to three, but still put in for four days of per diem reimbursements.

"I believe you're dealing with potential accounting errors," he said. "It's not going to be anything more than 65 bucks."

•••

HART's outside attorney also has investigated Armijo's decision to rent a Harbour Island condominium from a lawyer under contract with the agency.

Armijo said HART's then-attorney, Clark Jordan-Holmes, told him the rental created no conflict of interest. Jordan-Holmes has declined to say what advice he might have given Armijo.

Armijo also could face questions Monday about the appearance of another transaction.

In March 2010, Armijo hired Olga Gonzalez as special assistant to the CEO at a salary of $69,500 a year.

About a year before that, Gonzalez's husband, real estate agent Jover Gonzalez, acted as the buyer's agent when Armijo bought a South Tampa condominium.

Four months after being hired, Olga Gonzalez was given a new job, manager of executive policy and board relations, and a raise to $85,000 a year.

When the Times called Armijo on Friday to ask additional questions, he declined to discuss the allegations against him.

•••

If HART board members want to fire Armijo, they would need the votes of at least eight of the board's 12 members.

If they did fire him, Armijo would be entitled under his contract to 180 days' pay unless he is fired for willful malfeasance, gross negligence or acts of dishonesty or moral turpitude resulting in a conviction.

Armijo said he doesn't feel it will come anywhere close to that.

"What we're dealing with is a lot of exaggeration and hearsay," he said. "I feel confident at the end of the day this will be cleared."

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction: Real estate agent Jover Gonzalez was the buyer's agent for the purchase of a condominium by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority chief executive officer David Armijo in April 2009. Gonzalez's wife, Olga, was hired as special assistant to Armijo in March 2010. An article Saturday misstated the year she was hired.

David J. Armijo

Age: 52

Salary: $185,338 annually

Background: 25 years in public transportation in California, New Mexico and Texas, most recently the Orange County, Calif. and Los Angeles areas.

Employees: 767

Operating budget as HART CEO: $62.7 million (45 percent from property taxes, 23 percent from fares, and most of the rest from federal and state grants)

.biography

David J. Armijo

Age: 52

Salary: $185,338 annually

Background: 25 years in public transportation in California, New Mexico and Texas, most recently in the Orange County, Calif., and Los Angeles areas.

Employees: 767

Operating budget as HART CEO: $62.7 million (45 percent from property taxes, 23 percent from fares and most of the rest from federal and state grants).

HART chief executive faces showdown over whistle-blowers' allegations 04/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011 10:25am]
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