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HART board fires chief executive after investigation of whistleblower complaint

Ben Limmer took the lead role at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority on March 25 following a national search.

TAMPA — Hillsborough’s transit agency voted Friday to fire its chief executive officer after a three-month investigation found he violated eight agency policies.

Ben Limmer, 41, was chosen to head the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority on March 25 following a national search. But seven months into his time as CEO, a whistleblower sent a report to the board raising concerns that Limmer violated procurement processes and acted improperly with vendors.

The board voted to place him on leave Nov. 4 and hired the law firm Carlton Fields to conduct an investigation that stretched into three months. The firm shared its findings with the agency in a 76-page report released Sunday.

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

Board members listened to presentations Friday from Carlton Fields and from Limmer’s attorney, Ryan Barack. The firm found that Limmer violated purchasing card rules, steered contracts to a specific vendor and hired an outside law firm without board approval.

Limmer sat in the front row during the meeting, alongside his wife. Barack acknowledged to the board that his client had made mistakes but said he is determined to fix these problems going forward through his leadership of the agency.

Friday marked the first time Limmer or his attorney responded to the allegations. They disputed some of the findings.

Ben Limmer, center, sits in the audience of a Hillsborough Regional Area Transit Authority meeting Friday as board members discuss an investigation into his actions related to procurement and vendor relations. The board voted 11-1 to fire Limmer. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times ]

“Mr. Limmer is well equipped to tackle these issues head-on with a sense of urgency while collaborating fully with (agency) staff," Barack said. “Mr. Limmer appreciates that he made mistakes ... these were not willful, deliberate or intentional.”

But ultimately, the board decided there was no future for Limmer as the leader of the transit agency.

Following nearly two hours of discussion, board chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller made the motion to fire Limmer. Board member and commissioner Pat Kemp seconded the motion. The vote passed, 11-1.

“The investigation verifies a pattern of deliberate and willful violations of policies in several different areas," Kemp said. "It wasn’t a one-time incident or misunderstanding on Mr. Limmer’s part.”

Les Miller, Hillsborough County commissioner and chairman of the county's transit agency board, made the motion to fire chief executive officer Ben Limmer on Friday during a special meeting. Only one board member voted no. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times ]

Board member Marvin Knight was the lone opposing vote.

Limmer has been paid an annual salary of $210,000 to oversee 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.

Related: Florida Supreme Court justices question validity of Hillsborough transportation tax

Limmer said in a statement after the meeting that he was tasked last spring with transforming the transit authority into the world-class agency that Hillsborough County deserves.

“That transformation required bold action, a new executive team, and a complete internal review of policies ranging from how we hire people to how we deliver great service to our customers,” Limmer wrote. “As I focused on the new direction of our agency, I made avoidable errors in regards to some internal policies. However, those errors were not intentional.

Related: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

Limmer thanked the employees who stood by him and continue to serve Hillsborough County.

Carolyn House Stewart, appointed as interim chief executive when Limmer was placed on leave, will remain in the position for now.

Only one member of the board voted no Friday on the motion to fire Ben Limmer, chief executive of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times ]

Miller said after the meeting that the agency needs a CEO with strong leadership and administrative skills.

“We’re going to have to have a strong CEO, not necessarily someone with transit experience," Miller said. "We have the transit people here. ... We need a CEO that’s going to right this ship along with the board and get this organization back on track.”

In firing Limmer for cause, the board determined he violated his contract in a “willful, deliberate, intentional" manner. As a result, he will not receive severance compensation.

Related: How the plan to fix the Howard Frankland Bridge fell apart, told in Legos

Knight and city of Tampa appointee Kathleen Shanahan asked their fellow board members to consider other options.

“I feel that just to come out so harsh on him, I don’t see it that way," Knight said. "In my mind, in my heart, I felt that he made a great effort.”

Shanahan said there were individual tendencies highlighted in the report that could be explained, but she didn’t see how Limmer could return to run the agency with integrity.

“I’m not excusing...but I think firing for cause in an action like that is a very, very long term detrimental professional impact on an individual,” Shanahan said.

But Miller wasn’t having any of it.

“I cannot sit here ... and have a CEO violate policies,” Miller said. “There was a cause, eight of them.”