Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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.


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 [email protected]

Board members: HART executive ordered 'unconscionable' contract changes to protect himself 04/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 11:58pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series


    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena


    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack


    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.