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Daniel Ruth

An express route to trouble

If you didn't know any better, you might think we were dealing with melodramatic intrigue behind the scenes at the CIA, or the inner councils of the Vatican, or a Gadhafi family reunion.

Alas, no. It's merely Tampa's bus company, for crying out loud, which over the years has developed a reputation for being more dysfunctional than Macbeth meets Charlie Sheen.

At the moment, HART, which is really merely a quaint acronym for The Bus Company, is in the throes of yet another internal kerfuffle over the leadership of its chief executive. This time it's David Armijo, who is accused of having all the people skills of the state executioner.

In an anonymous whistle-blower complaint, at least three bus company employees have accused the boss of various boo-boos such as conflicts of interest, favoritism in hiring employees and vendors, taking unauthorized trips and retaliating against workers who might have raised concerns about Armijo's conduct.

You have to admit, if you were a chief executive officer and your employees kept hinting to you that you were playing footsie-wootsie with the agency's rules and policies, you might get steamed over all this insubordination.

Then there is the appearance of impropriety. With apologies to Humphrey Bogart, of all the condos in all the world, he had to walk into his. Adding to Armijo's woes is that fact he rented a 1,500-square-foot condo from a lawyer hired to do legal work for the bus company, which is something that, in the immortal words of that famous bus driver Ralph Kramden, would be Armijo's "hamana, hamana, hamana" moment.

It seems when Armijo arrived in Tampa in 2007 to take the bus company job, he needed a place to live. With about a 10 percent apartment vacancy rate, it's reasonable to assume Armijo would have found plenty of other potential residences.

And yet the best deal he could find was labor attorney Mark Levitt's Harbour Island digs? Levitt's firm has a contract with the bus company, so you would have thought someone would have read the bus company's employee handbook, which states bus company employees should not have any outside financial relationships with anyone who might cause a conflict of interest.

Although by all accounts Armijo was paying Levitt fair market value for the condo, it's hard to avoid at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. After all, Armijo makes $185,000 a year to manage the bus company and Levitt's firm has received a couple hundred thousand dollars dealing with various labor issues. Armijo certainly could have afforded another residence that wouldn't have raised eyebrows.

Armijo has argued he asked the bus company's then-attorney Clark Jordan-Holmes if it would be okay for him to rent from Levitt and Jordan-Holmes, who one might suspect never bothered to read the bus company's own employee handbook, told him, sure, go ahead.

At the moment Armijo has been placed on a paid leave while the bus company's board looks into allegations the executive director has all the management skills of the Libyan rebels, and into the condo deal.

Longtime observers of Tampa government agencies and especially the bus company will probably be shrugging their shoulders and sighing, "So? What else is new?" Not much.

Before Armijo rolled into town, the bus company was managed by Sharon Dent, who went through more votes of no-confidence than Gary Coleman's post Diff'rent Strokes sitcom career.

During her rocky tenure, Dent was accused of financial mismanagement, creating a hostile work environment and lying to the Hillsborough County Commission, which in all fairness is almost considered an after-dinner parlor game in our fair hamlet.

Just what is it about the bus company that employees invariably find themselves working for … difficult people? Look, it's just the bus company. The workplace environment to make sure the Route 33 bus makes it from Mission Bell to the University of South Florida should not turn into something out of the galley slave ramming speed scene from Ben-Hur.

It is not entirely clear when the bus company board will wrap up its investigation into the allegations against Armijo as he collects his paychecks and sits around his Harbour Island condo.

But it probably doesn't bode well for an executive when fearful employees are seeking whistle-blower protections to make their accusations.

Armijo's current contract is set to expire next year, but it might not be a bad idea for him to start checking bus schedules leaving town.

An express route to trouble 04/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 11, 2011 6:56pm]

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