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HART board authorizes investigation into hostile work environment, double-dipping

David Adams, attorney at Tampa firm Bennett, Jacobs & Adams, is tasked with handling the external probe.
Council members listen to David Smith, agency attorney, speak during a board meeting at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa.
Council members listen to David Smith, agency attorney, speak during a board meeting at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2022|Updated Nov. 29, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s transit agency will face an investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment and the double-dipping of a top staffer who was simultaneously working for a public agency in another state, the Board of Directors unanimously authorized at a meeting Tuesday morning.

The special meeting, scheduled last week, took place the day after trustees of the union representing hundreds of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority employees called for the resignation of the agency’s CEO, Adelee Le Grand.

“HART has been in a downward spiral under the leadership of Adelee Le Grand,” ATU Local 1593 union representatives Ismael Rivera and Brenda Moore said in a statement issued late Monday. “Ms. Le Grand is ruling with an iron fist, it’s her way or the highway. Unfortunately, her highway leads to dysfunctional transit system.”

David Adams, attorney at Tampa firm Bennett, Jacobs & Adams, is tasked with handling the investigation. He has served as outside counsel for the transit authority for many years, according to HART general council David Smith. Adams will report to the general counsel, who reports to the board.

“There will be no one who is hired or fired or controlled by the CEO” involved in the investigative process, Smith said at Tuesday’s meeting, which took place at the agency’s administrative headquarters in Ybor City. “This will be an independent and a fair investigation.”

The authorization of an external investigation comes two weeks after it was revealed the agency’s fourth-highest paid staffer was also working for the public transit agency in New Orleans — netting more than $350,000 per year and violating both agency’s employment policies, the Tampa Bay Times previously reported.

Officials with both agencies told the Times that they didn’t know she had two jobs. The discovery has raised broader questions about the practices of CEO Adelee Le Grand. Teri Wright had reported directly to Le Grand, who maintains she was unaware of Wright’s dual employment. Wright’s last day with HART was Nov. 7. In Louisiana, she on paid administrative while the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority investigates.

At the Tuesday meeting, Tampa council member and HART board member Luis Viera said that he also wanted to know if there was any way to recoup some of her salary: “Can we get that money back to be good stewards of taxpayer money?”

At the meeting, Le Grand said she welcomed the investigation, hoping it will help the agency identify areas for immediate and longer-term improvements.

Le Grand has held the top spot at the agency, beset by sagging ridership numbers and facing an uncertain financial future, since the start of last year. “I came here to find a way to bring stability to an organization that had been riddled for decades, and in the near years, with turmoil,” she said.

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Adelee Le Grand, CEO, speaks to council members during a board meeting at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa.
Adelee Le Grand, CEO, speaks to council members during a board meeting at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The probe is the latest development in a years-long tidal wave of controversy plaguing the transit agency, which has faced a revolving door of chief executives. “From 2018 to the date that you decided and voted to hire me, you had six CEOs,” Le Grand told board members Tuesday.

Yvette Louis, President of the Hillsborough Branch of the NAACP, urged board members to recognize and respond to the agency’s tumultuous history.

“I really want you to understand this: This didn’t just start. This problem has been here and it’s up to this board to get it resolved,” she said.

While her organization has long received messages from the county’s transit workers, the volume has ticked up in recent weeks, she told the Times. They have been receiving calls and emails from staff who have no one else to turn to about the lack of respect they feel in the workplace, Louis said. “No one is listening to them in the agency, so they come to us.”

Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough County NAACP president, speaks to council members during a board meeting at the 
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa.
Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough County NAACP president, speaks to council members during a board meeting at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Headquarters on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

During the investigation, the board will function as a “quasi-judicial body,” tasked with hearing the facts of the investigation and making appropriate policies changes if needed, general counsel David Smith said Tuesday.

“You cannot be or appear to pre-judge an issue,” he cautioned board members. “It’s important to make sure you get the facts before you make any statements and let the process unfold.”

Newly-elected Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Joshua Wostal asked Le Grand Tuesday if she would heed calls for her resignation. Le Grand did not answer the question directly, but Smith said the special meeting had a specific purpose listed in an already circulated meeting notice which did not include the topic of resignation.

“We’re not here to evaluate the CEO. We’re not here to hire or fire the CEO,” Smith said, adding that such a discussion could take place at the next board meeting, Dec. 5.

Wostal also questioned whether the office of the state’s inspector general could lead the investigation. Smith said the office primarily deals with fiscal irresponsibility, adding: “We do not know yet whether we have that problem. That’s not to say we don’t.” The investigation by Adams could lead to an investigation by the office, he said.

Toward the meeting’s close, Tampa mayor and HART board member Jane Castor emphasized the importance of public transportation to scores of county residents, and the importance of continuing to help people move around their community amid the latest wave of controversies.

“We brought Ms. Le Grand in to try to change the culture and try to lift up HART as an organization — a very underfunded organization,” she said. “We are here as a board to ensure that we are providing a great service, the best service we can to our community.”