Hillsborough transit CEO accused of abusive, humiliating behavior

Carolyn House Stewart has served as interim CEO since November.
Members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority discuss business during a February board meeting.
Members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority discuss business during a February board meeting. [ CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times ]
Published Aug. 3, 2020|Updated Aug. 4, 2020

TAMPA — The interim chief executive of Hillsborough’s transit authority is under investigation to learn whether she acted in an abusive and humiliating manner.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board voted Monday to hire an outside lawyer to investigate an anonymous ethics complaint that was submitted against interim CEO Carolyn House Stewart. Stewart will keep her position as interim CEO during the investigation, despite a request from complainant that she be placed on paid leave.

Agency attorney David Smith told the board the complaint was filed through a web portal that protects the identity of the complainant but makes it possible to communicate with them and ask follow up questions.

Related: Hillsborough transit CEO Ben Limmer allowed to resign instead of be fired

The person alleged that Stewart, who was appointed interim CEO following a whistleblower complaint against former CEO Ben Limmer last fall, has acted in an “abusive, hostile, humiliating” manner. No other details were released.

“It’s important to remember these are only allegations at this point,” Smith said. “There’s not a lot of backup information about that. That having been said, obviously we have to take the complaint seriously because it does allege a violation of HART policy which, if accurate, would place persons working at HART in an environment we do not wish them to be under.”

Stewart did not respond during the meeting, but Smith said she told him she would not interfere with the investigation in any way.

Related: Hillsborough transit agency to conduct national search for new executive

This is the second time in a year that someone has filed a complaint against the acting CEO of the transit authority. Limmer, who took over the organization in March 2019, was placed on paid leave in November following a whistleblower complaint about purchasing issues and improper vendor relations. A three-month investigation found he violated board policies. Limmer was allowed to resign.

Stewart, the agency’s director of risk and legal services, as been interim CEO since Nov. 4.

Board chair Mariella Smith said the board had “very little choice but to proceed with the investigation” adding later that “the complaint before us is anonymous, it is very vague and it is so far unsubstantiated.”

Agency attorney Smith recommended two outside labor lawyers who could investigate the complaint. He said both had a rate of about $250 for public sector work.