Transit CEO hired lawyers without OK, showed contractor favoritism, report says

The Hillsborough investigation found eight policy violations against Ben Limmer. He remains on paid leave.
Members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board discuss an investigation into the agency's chief executive officer, Ben Limmer, during a board meeting Monday.
Members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board discuss an investigation into the agency's chief executive officer, Ben Limmer, during a board meeting Monday. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times ]
Published Feb. 3, 2020|Updated Feb. 3, 2020

TAMPA — A three-month investigation into Hillsborough transit agency’s chief executive officer found eight violations of policies, including retaining a law firm without board approval and giving a company an unfair advantage in a multi-million-dollar contract.

Ben Limmer started as Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s CEO on March 25, overseeing 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.

But barely seven months into the job, Limmer was placed on paid leave after a whistleblower raised allegations related to procurement policies and vendor relations, travel and purchase card policies and hiring and promotions.

Related: Hillsborough transit chief placed on leave after whistleblower complaint

In response to a public records request from the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, a copy of the report was released by the office of Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, a member of the transit agency board.

Several of the 19 allegations include inappropriate interactions with Tampa-based TransPro Consulting, one giving them an unfair competitive advantage in bidding on a $3 million contract. The contract was never awarded.

The report describes a cozy relationship between Limmer and TransPro’s chief executive, Mark Aesch. In 2007, Aesch turned down an offer to serve as CEO of Hillsborough’s transit agency.

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

Half of the violations were related to misusing a company purchasing card, including buying a Keurig coffee maker for Limmer’s office and twice charging his child’s lunch to a company card.

Investigators with the law firm Carlton Fields found the remaining 11 allegations were either inconclusive or did not violate agency policy. Investigators were expected to send a completed report to board members in January with enough time to read and review the allegations before February’s board meeting.

The firm delivered the report, plus thousands of pages of supporting documents, to board members late Sunday afternoon.

The board decided at Monday’s meeting that members did not have adequate time to review the report before the 9 a.m. meeting and voted to postpone any related discussion to a special meeting planned for Friday.

The investigation started on Nov. 4 after board members received the whistleblower complaint.

Limmer, who makes an annual salary of $210,000, was immediately placed on paid leave. The agency hired Carlton Fields on Nov. 14 to conduct the investigation for a cost not to exceed $100,000.

Carlton Fields interviewed 22 witnesses, including Limmer, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.

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Limmer, who was in the audience Monday, remains on paid leave.

“Like everyone, I just received the memorandum and want time to review it,” Limmer told the Times in a statement. “My commitment to transform HART into the world-class transit agency Hillsborough County deserves has not wavered throughout this lengthy process.”

The first finding in the report states that TransPro received an unfair competitive advantage when bidding on a $3 million contract for management consulting services.

According to the report, Limmer asked TransPro for a scope of work template on a multi-year consulting contract. Limmer forwarded that template to John Edmondson, the agency’s director of procurement, but did not tell him the template came from TransPro.

Edmondson drafted a bid solicitation based on that template and then raised concerns when TransPro received the highest score among bidders.

Limmer told investigators he instructed Edmondson to find other templates and to draft the solicitation using various sources, but investigators were unable to find any written evidence supporting that.

The second matter deals with Limmer hiring local law firm Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick without board approval.

One of Limmer’s first actions as CEO was to reorganize the agency and fire some long standing employees, including chief financial officer Jeff Seward and chief administrative officer Kenyatta Lee, who had also been a finalist for the CEO role.

Related: Two top leaders leave Hillsborough's bus agency weeks after driver's slaying

According to the report, Limmer said he could not use existing legal help ”because the separations would involve such high-ranking executives within the Agency."

Limmer authorized TransPro to enter a $30,000 contract with the Shumaker law firm without board approval, a violation of the transit agency’s manual.

But interviews show David Smith, the transit authority’s general counsel, knew about the agreement, approved the work, and emailed Shumaker thanking them for helping Limmer with the firings of Seward and Lee.

Another allegation related to TransPro found Limmer unilaterally entered into a $99,000 proposal with the company without providing other vendors an opportunity to submit proposals. The contract ultimately did not move forward because the agency did not have the money to pay for it.

The report finds Limmer routinely used his company credit card in a way that violated agency policy, whether it was buying his child lunch in Toronto or asking a staff member to use a company card to buy a Keurig machine for his office.

Limmer, who was the first Hillsborough transit CEO to receive a purchasing card, repeatedly used it to cover daily expenses while on company business.

The transit authority’s policy was to give the CEO 75 percent of daily expenses in advance and then reimburse the remaining 25 percent after the CEO returned.

Instead, Limmer asked for a company card and used it for his expenses, including meals. He told investigators that Seward, the former chief financial officer, had allowed him to do so when traveling. Investigators found this violated agency policies.

Limmer told investigators he offered to refund the agency for lunches he bought his child while at a transportation conference — a kid’s cheeseburger and apple juice costing a total of $13. But both of Limmer’s assistants told investigators he never gave them cash to cover a charge.

One of the assistants, Lillybeth Salas, told Carlton Fields that Limmer told her to buy a Keurig machine for his office. Limmer told investigators it was Salas’ idea to have the agency pay for the machine.

Charges included in the report show nearly $500 spent over five months, mostly on the coffee maker and pods.

Limmer also failed to make sure that establishments did not charge sales tax when he was using the company purchasing card. Hillsborough’s transit agency is tax-exempt and cannot be charged for sales tax.

The final violation described by Carlton Fields found that Limmer cost the agency $1,100 in hotel room fees because he thought the conference where he was speaking would pay for the room. Limmer also failed to get approval from board chair Les Miller for the expense.

According to the report, Limmer told investigators he believed some of the allegations against him were part of a conspiracy because he was “significantly changing personnel to be ready for the influx of funds from the transportation tax, and he anticipates making additional changes in the future.” He called the actions an “organized assassination” to make him “look bad.”

Carlton Fields investigators said they could not substantiate Limmer’s claim there was a conspiracy against him.

“The procurement staff continually communicated with Mr. Limmer about appropriate procurement procedures, often having to correct transgressions in the process,” the report said. “Contrary to Mr. Limmer’s suggestion that HART employees were trying to make him “look bad”, the investigation instead established that employees were working to find a way to satisfy Mr. Limmer’s requests while complying with HART policies.”

Carlton Fields included six recommendations to the transit agency in its report, including a review of procurement policies, revising the employee handbook section on pay increases and making sure employees know how to express concerns within the agency.