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Board members: HART executive ordered 'unconscionable' contract changes to protect himself

HART chief executive David Armijo defends his actions during a 4 1/2-hour meeting Monday that ended in his termination with severance and benefits worth more than $90,000.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

HART chief executive David Armijo defends his actions during a 4 1/2-hour meeting Monday that ended in his termination with severance and benefits worth more than $90,000.

TAMPA — One week before HART's board of directors met to determine the fate of the transit agency's suspended chief executive, chairwoman Alison Hewitt printed out David Armijo's contracts over three years and compared them side by side.

"I just hit a complete and total panic," she recalled.

She saw significant revisions that made it harder for the board to fire Armijo. And she couldn't remember the changes ever coming up for discussion.

She racked her brain, pulled agendas and meeting minutes, listened to audio recordings of past meetings and called the board's former attorney to try to determine how she could have signed off on such revisions.

"I didn't want to let people down," she said, "and needed to know how I made a mistake."

The answer Hewitt found stunned her: Armijo had ordered the changes without the board's knowledge.

That revelation shook her trust and was a pivotal reason a majority of board members said they voted to fire him late Monday.

"I think that was the concern of the full board," said board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "There's this pattern for disregard of rules, process and procedures."

Several employees of the Hills­borough Area Regional Transit Authority had accused Armijo of conflicts of interest, favoritism in hiring, improper leave-time payouts and retaliatory reassignments and demotions for those who raised concerns.

He was suspended March 21 while the board investigated the allegations, which came from about 12 employees, including three whistle-blowers who filed written complaints.

Armijo, hired in 2007, reported to a board of directors made up of state and county appointees and elected officials charged with overseeing the $62 million-a-year agency. They could fire him for cause if he intentionally breached HART's policies, according to the contract the board approved in 2008. All it took was a majority vote.

But those requirements changed late last year after Armijo's annual evaluation, which prompted a raise and contract change. Now it took a majority plus an additional vote to fire him. And a "for cause" firing was no longer tied to policy violations but instead broad, debatable terms such as "willful malfeasance or gross negligence."

Michael York, a board member who chaired a subcommittee to review Armijo's performance and contract, told his peers he didn't remember seeing the revisions at two November meetings where the HART staff should have brought them up for discussion.

Minutes from those meetings affirm his account.

Hewitt said she also didn't see them during a Dec. 6 full board meeting where the contract was approved.

Meeting minutes reflect a discussion focused on Armijo's exemplary performance and whether he deserved a 6 percent raise and a several-thousand-dollar bonus.

Ten of the 11 board members decided he did.

Hillsborough Commissioners Sharpe and Kevin Beckner, who also serves on HART's board, said changes to firing clauses would have raised red flags, since both knew the importance of clear dismissal guidelines after experiencing the drawn-out and costly firing of County Administrator Pat Bean in June.

Beckner said the changes were unconscionable. Sharpe called their ambiguity a "recipe for disaster."

Clark Jordan-Holmes, HART's attorney at the time of the contract change, told board members Monday that the revisions were minor. But after Sharpe called them a "pretty big deal," Jordan-Holmes blamed Armijo.

"All these changes were requested by the CEO," he told board members. "They were not changed in isolation."

Further investigation, Hewitt told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, showed that Jordan-Holmes worked with Olga Gonzalez, manager of executive policy and board relations, on the wording before Jordan-Holmes made the contract changes.

Gonzalez's hiring had been a complaint of the whistle blowers. Her husband had served as Armijo's real estate agent before Armijo hired her as his special assistant. And before her employment probationary period was over, Armijo gave her a $15,000 pay increase and a job change.

The way Armijo's changes sneaked by board members magnified loopholes in HART's contract procedures and took advantage of the board's trust.

At no time were board members in November or December shown a full draft of Armijo's revised contract, Hewitt said. Board members said they saw only minor revisions. They said Jordan-Holmes and Armijo never brought up the larger changes during three meetings where the contract was reviewed.

After the Dec. 6 meeting, Hewitt said Jordan-Holmes presented her the contract, which she looked over and signed.

"I will admit that I did not go page by page," she said. "… I would not know what to look for unless I looked at the old contract."

The board, which is not paid, depends on HART's attorney to guide the directors through legal issues and complicated contracts, board members said.

HART's attorney reports to the board, not the CEO.

The insertion of the contract revisions wasn't an oversight by the board, Sharpe said — it seemed to be a purposeful concealment by the staff.

Armijo did not return a call for comment Tuesday. Jordan-Holmes said he had nothing more to add than what he told board members Monday.

At the end of that meeting, board members fired Armijo without cause and gave him 180 days of severance and benefits worth more than $90,000.

They also instructed HART's current attorney, Mary Ann Stiles, to review policies and contract procedures to make sure a similar scenario never arises.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Board members: HART executive ordered 'unconscionable' contract changes to protect himself 04/19/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 12:58am]
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