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Investigation into HART CEO expected to stretch into new year

The transit agency hired Tampa law firm Carlton Field to look into a whistleblower’s complaint. Details remain secret.
Ben Limmer is on paid leave from his job as CEO of the Hillsborough transit agency. Limmer oversees an operation with more than 800 employees and about 180 vehicles.
Ben Limmer is on paid leave from his job as CEO of the Hillsborough transit agency. Limmer oversees an operation with more than 800 employees and about 180 vehicles.
Published Nov. 27
Updated Nov. 27

TAMPA — An investigation stemming from a whistleblower complaint against the CEO of Hillsborough’s transit agency is expected to stretch into the new year.

Agency attorney David Smith had hoped the investigation of Ben Limmer would be completed by Monday’s board meeting but he told the Tampa Bay Times this week that January is “the best we could hope for." February’s board meeting is also a possibility, Smith said.

Ben Limmer, who makes an annual salary of $210,000, has been on paid leave since Nov. 4. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Atlanta Journal Constitution]

Smith has said the complaint involves procurement processes, vendor relations and related matters but the agency has refused to provide any other details.

Meantime, Limmer, who makes an annual salary of $210,000, remains on paid leave.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority signed a retainer agreement with Carlton Fields on Nov. 13 for the Tampa firm to conduct the investigation. Five attorneys and one paralegal were assigned at a rate of $350 per hour. The contract is not to exceed $100,000.

The investigation was opened on Nov. 4 after Smith briefed the transit authority board on a whistleblower complaint against Limmer. All the board members had received a letter three days earlier from an individual who shared allegations about purchasing issues.

RELATED STORY: Hillsborough transit chief placed on leave after whistleblower complaint

The identity of the individual and the nature of the allegations is exempt from public record under Florida law until the investigation is completed, Smith said.

Limmer told the Times he has not been made aware of the details of the complaint, other than what was publicly shared with the board. Smith said Limmer will be briefed but it will be up to the attorneys at Carlton Fields to determine when and how that happens.

“There is definitely a requirement and intent to make sure he has a full opportunity to know what the issues are and to respond,” Smith said. “I think as soon as those issues are crystallized and made clear, they will be shared with him.”

RELATED STORY: Here’s how Hillsborough would spend its transportation tax, if it could

The scope of the investigation, according to the Carlton Fields agreement, includes evaluating whether any policies have been violated, such as those related to procurement and travel. The firm will then render a legal determination regarding possible violation of policies or laws.

Limmer oversees a $120 million annual budget that could swell to more than $250 million if Hillsborough’s new one-cent transportation sales tax is upheld by the Florida Supreme Court next year. 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.

Carolyn House Stewart, the agency’s director of risk and legal services, is serving as interim CEO. Smith said it is up the agency’s board to determine whether Stewart will receive additional compensation.

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