TAMPA — Days before the release of a taxpayer-funded investigation into allegations of workplace mismanagement by the chief executive of Hillsborough County’s transit agency, her lawyer has offered a settlement in exchange for keeping the findings secret.
In the proposed deal, Adelee Le Grand would remain the CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority until at least the end of May. The investigation, which has so far cost the agency more than $28,000, would be stopped and its findings would be withheld from the public.
“The pending investigation will cease immediately and no written report shall be prepared and no oral report shall be given,” according to emails and notes of the settlement obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Le Grand, who joined the agency two years ago and is the highest-paid CEO in its history, would collect 20 weeks of paid compensation in a lump sum on her way out — more than $110,000. She also would receive her accrued sick and annual leave balances if the transit board approves the deal.
The investigation into complaints accusing Le Grand of mismanagement began late last year after the Times 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 the employment policies of both agencies. Teri Wright, HART’s chief customer experience officer, reported directly to Le Grand.
Additional reporting by the Times revealed high turnover, a stretched-thin financial department and longstanding vacancies of senior positions, which left some employees worried about the agency’s future and the public they serve.
Under the proposed settlement, which the transit agency’s lawyers “strongly recommend” the board approves, Le Grand and the agency “will amicably separate without further disparagement of the other,” according to the notes.
HART general counsel David Smith circulated the proposal — written by Le Grand’s attorney, Tampa-based Steven Wenzel — to board members Thursday. Wenzel offered a verbal settlement proposal to the agency’s lawyer Tuesday, Smith wrote.
Hundreds of pages of public records and interviews with 15 current and former employees, including department heads, executives and two of Le Grand’s former executive assistants, depicted an atmosphere of fear and secrecy at the transit agency serving Florida’s fourth-most populous county, the Times previously reported.
Le Grand would remain a “fully functioning CEO through May 31, 2023” and be willing to stay longer, according to the proposal.
The Times obtained the documents detailing the proposal four days before Tampa attorney David Adams is scheduled to deliver a verbal presentation of his findings to the public and the agency’s board members, who include Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and four Hillsborough County commissioners.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
If the settlement is not approved and the investigation’s findings are released as planned, a report would be “finalized shortly” after Monday’s meeting, Smith wrote earlier this month.
The results are to be revealed verbally first instead of on paper to ensure due process and deter the dozen board members from making “any judgments” before reviewing all relevant material, Smith wrote. Otherwise, the agency’s board members “may be reading about the report in the newspaper before hearing directly from the attorney who undertook the investigation,” he wrote.
Now, Smith and other agency attorney Julia Mandell are urging board members to approve the settlement.
“It is the Board’s decision, but it is the opinion of General Counsel, after consultation with employment counsel, that in light of all the relevant circumstances, acceptance of this proposal is in the best interest of HART,” Smith wrote to board members Thursday.
He has called each board member “at least once” to talk directly about the proposal. “Due to the shortness of time and busy schedules, I have been unable to talk to all of you in advance,” he wrote Thursday.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Joshua Wostal called the proposal a “slap in the face” to taxpayers and an attempt to suppress the investigation’s findings.
“The voters paid for it,” he told the Times on Thursday. “They deserve to see what’s in it.”
In a statement, Mayor Castor said she needed to listen to the agency’s attorneys on Monday. “To me, the issues are what is best for taxpayers and what will allow the organization to move on so we can focus on providing the best possible service to HART’s customers with the agency’s very limited resources,” she added.
Board chairperson and Tampa City Council member Luis Viera said he is “unable to substantively comment at this time” given the ongoing investigation and will reserve his remarks for Monday’s meeting. “I look forward to addressing this issue, which is so important to our community, in the proper forum,” he told the Times.
Le Grand and HART attorney David Smith also did not respond to requests for comment Thursday or Friday.
Le Grand remained as CEO during the ongoing investigation after board members deadlocked in December on whether she should be placed on administrative leave.
Among those who voted for her to remain was Castor. She stressed the need for stability at the agency, which has faced a yearslong tidal wave of controversy and a revolving door of chief executives.
“At the very time that HART needs leadership, we are talking about benching leadership,” Castor said at a meeting on Dec. 5.
When the board unanimously authorized the external investigation, they were firm in their deadline: 60 days. Monday marks 97 days since the board gave the green light.
To date, Adams’ firm has billed the transit agency $28,811.49 to conduct the investigation. The most recent invoice was dated Feb. 22, according to public records.
When the agency funded an external investigation into a previous CEO, legal fees climbed to $110,000. That probe led to the departure of Ben Limmer in 2020, finding eight violations of policies, including retaining a law firm without board approval and giving a company an unfair advantage in a multimillion-dollar contract.
Amid growing dissent, a key talking point from Le Grand has been that change is difficult. “In making the tough decisions required to change the status quo, feathers will no doubt be ruffled,” she wrote last November in a memo to staff.
In February, she hosted a town hall meeting to field questions from staff members about job security and budgetary challenges facing the agency.
When asked about privatization, Le Grand replied, “Everything is on the table,” according to notes taken by the agency’s chief of staff, Angela Paye, obtained through a public records request.
In preparation for the next financial year, which begins in October, the agency is going to eliminate vacancies, “excluding operators, mechanics and essential positions,” Le Grand wrote in a staff memo a few weeks ago.
“Long term, we will continue to work with the financial consultant to identify and evaluate recommended opportunities to increase revenue and reduce expenses,” she wrote.