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Hillsborough transit chief placed on leave after whistleblower complaint

Ben Limmer became CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority this spring after working in Atlanta and Phoenix.

TAMPA —The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board voted unanimously Monday to place its new CEO Ben Limmer on paid leave, citing allegations from a whistleblower about a purchasing issue.

Limmer has been with the agency for seven months. He was appointed after a national search to select a new leader following the departure of former CEO Katharine Eagan.

“The board received a letter Friday evening that can only be characterized as a whistleblower alleging improper conduct on behalf of the CEO in respect to procurement processes, vendor relations and related matters,” agency attorney David Smith said during Monday’s board meeting.

The news came at a critical time for the agency, which could see its annual budget more than double if the Florida Supreme Court upholds a one-cent sales tax for transportation that voters approved last year.

RELATED: Hillsborough transit agency selects Benjamin Limmer of Atlanta as new CEO

Transit agency chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said he contacted Smith Saturday after receiving the letter. That’s when the preliminary investigation started, Miller said, and the board voted at the start of its regularly scheduled meeting Monday morning to place Limmer on paid leave.

Later Monday, Limmer said in a statement that he has worked to build a culture of excellence at the agency while assembling a new leadership team during the last year.

In one of his first actions as CEO, he eliminated the position of chief administrative officer and started a search for a new chief financial officer after Jeff Seward resigned. Limmer also restructured the organization so that he would work more closely with individuals in the safety and security, human resources and legal departments.

“That culture involves honesty, integrity and transparency," the statement said. "So while I have not seen the complaint against me, I welcome and look forward to cooperating fully as I remain committed to HART’s mission, its team, board and the people it serves, and I expect a speedy resolution.”

Limmer oversees a $120 million annual budget that could swell to more than $250 million if the transportation sales tax is not overturned. The agency, with more than 800 employees, operates about 180 vehicles along 34 bus routes, plus the TECO Line Streetcar in Tampa and door-to-door service for individuals with disabilities.

Limmer makes an annual salary of $210,000 and is entitled to as much as a 10 percent bonus, as determined by the board.

“This is a whistleblower issue and we’ve been advised by our counsel that we can’t say anything at all,” Miller said in an interview after the transit board’s meeting.

Smith told board members the identity of the whistleblower is to remain confidential and urged those who received the letter to be careful with whom they share information.

Limmer, who was present at the start of the meeting, was directed to leave following the board’s vote. As he gathered his things, Smith reminded board members that there has been no investigation or findings at this point to establish any wrong doing.

“Again, as Mr. Limmer departs, I reiterate nothing has been proven," Smith said. "These are merely allegations at this juncture. We would not want to injure anyone’s reputation, and nor will we do so.”

The agency released a statement Monday saying Carolyn House Stewart, the agency’s director of risk and legal services, will serve as interim CEO.

Smith said he recommended Stewart for the role because she is an attorney and the whistleblower process is “fraught with legal risk." He also cited her integrity and said she is well-regarded within the agency.

“It is important that we move expeditiously," Smith said. "Both in terms of whether we clear the individual accused or we find out what the problems are and start solving those.”

The board gave Stewart the authority to negotiate with two firms who could lead the investigation: Bennett, Jacobs and Adams in Tampa and Bell and Roper in Orlando.

“The goal here is to get this addressed as quickly as possible, to hire the attorneys that can best assist us in this issue, and to reduce any potential damage that might occur just because of this process,” board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said in an interview after the meeting.

We’ll get this addressed and get it done quickly and move on," Overman said. "HART’s got an agenda that’s robust, and we need to get back to it.”