Hillsborough transit system’s long-awaited CEO investigation

CEO Adelee Le Grand misled the public and her staff, an investigating attorney found
Mayor Jane Castor watches a presentation during a Hillsborough Area Regional board meeting on Monday in Tampa.
Mayor Jane Castor watches a presentation during a Hillsborough Area Regional board meeting on Monday in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 30

TAMPA — As a finalist for the top position at Hillsborough County’s transit agency, Adelee Le Grand pledged at least seven times in her interview she would foster a culture of “trust and transparency.”

Her vision as CEO, she told board members, was to be a tireless listener and to rebrand the organization, facing an uncertain fiscal future and a revolving door of leaders, as one of excellence. In a PowerPoint slide during her interview, she listed the proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Two and a half years later, she was suspended with pay following the presentation of a monthslong probe into her leadership. Investigating attorney David Adams interviewed roughly 50 current and former employees and reviewed thousands of pages of public records, finding a lack of effective leadership, poor organization morale, significant turnover and potential violation of state law.

He also found evidence to counter statements Le Grand has previously given the Tampa Bay Times and in public meetings regarding her knowledge of a top employee simultaneously working for a public transit agency in New Orleans.

Le Grand’s attorney Steven Wenzel will prepare an official defense in time for another special board meeting dedicated to this topic in early May, he said at the meeting Monday, adding: “There is contrary evidence that is strong and persuasive.”

On Tuesday morning, Wenzel wrote to HART’s general counsel to say he will “be moving to recuse certain board members” who have indicated in their statements to the press that “they prejudged this matter,” according to public records obtained by the Times.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit CEO Adelee Le Grand, right, speaks with her attorney Steven Wenzel during a board meeting on Monday.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit CEO Adelee Le Grand, right, speaks with her attorney Steven Wenzel during a board meeting on Monday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The investigation into complaints accusing Le Grand of mismanagement began late last year, after the Times revealed HART’s chief customer experience officer had for months also been working for the public transit agency in New Orleans — netting more than $350,000 per year. Working both jobs at the same time was in violation of both agencies’ policies.

Teri Wright reported directly to Le Grand. The pair had next-door offices. When Wright joined HART in February 2021, she was initially offered a salary of about $166,000 by human resources, but Le Grand insisted on a pay bump of almost $20,000, according to public records.

There is broad consensus Wright moved from Tampa to New Orleans last spring, Adams said. But during the investigation, Le Grand and Wright told two different stories as to why.

Public records reviewed by the Times show Wright was offered the job at the New Orleans Regional Public Transit Authority on March 3, 2022. Wright applied for the position Feb. 14 and was interviewed later that month, an agency spokesperson told the Times. She was picked out of an 11-person applicant pool and began work in April.

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On her application, she listed HART as her most recent employer and the reason for leaving as “new opportunity,” according to a copy reviewed by the Times. When asked, “May we contact this employer?” she ticked the box “No.” She was “done with HART,” Adams said.

According to Wright, Le Grand heard of the news at a March transit conference and then told Wright not to resign at HART because it would make her look bad, Adams said at the Monday meeting. That same month, three other high-profile employees resigned.

Le Grand told Adams that she learned of the dual employment in October from New Orleans transit board member Fred Neal Jr.

In an email to the Times, Neal confirmed he had a conversation with Le Grand in which he said his team “were happy to have Teri back” working for them in New Orleans. Through a lawyer he declined to respond to any follow-up questions, including when he learned Wright was simultaneously working at HART.

But records obtained by Adams show Teri Fisher, CEO and managing partner of Los Angeles-based consulting firm Insight Strategies Inc., emailed Le Grand in May: “I’m sorry to hear Teri is no longer at HART.”

Neither Le Grand nor Fisher responded to requests for comment from the Times Wednesday. Efforts by the Times to reach Wright by email, phone and letter in recent months have been unsuccessful.

“Regardless of whose story you believe — whether it’s Ms. Wright or the CEO’s — Ms. Le Grand withheld adverse information from this board,” Adams told board members Monday.

Le Grand said she met with Wright on Oct. 17 and demoted her to part-time status. Still, Le Grand didn’t disclose anything to board members, Adams found.

“Instead,” Adams said Monday, “this board found out about the dual employment of Teri Wright the same way I did, by reading about it in the newspaper.”

The same day the story ran, Wright was placed on unpaid leave from her position in New Orleans and the agency commenced an investigation.

A week later, she was terminated. The chief human resources officer wrote to her: “Ms. Wright not only was your employment with HART a conflict of interest, but you failed to obtain approval to engage in secondary employment.” She also fraudulently claimed compensation from the New Orleans agency while performing work for HART during overlapping hours, the letter said.

Wright resigned from HART in November, after a month of working for the agency part time, records show.

“When the allegations were confirmed, CEO Le Grand should have fired Teri Wright,” Adams told board members Monday. Instead, Wright collected more than $23,000 in accrued vacation. Had she been fired, HART policy would have barred her from the money, he said.

Attorney David Adams presents his findings in the investigation of 	Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO Adelee Le Grand.
Attorney David Adams presents his findings in the investigation of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO Adelee Le Grand. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Watching Monday’s presentation unfold was a “validating” experience for former staff members, including Ruthie Reyes Burckard, whose career in management at Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority spanned almost two decades and 10 CEOs.

“The current agency and employees deserve a leader who is invested in their best interest and the best interest of the community,” she told the Times.

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. His findings expand on much of what the Times reported in December about an atmosphere of fear and secrecy besetting the agency.

“There’s no question CEO Le Grand does not like public records,” Adams said Monday. Delays in accessing documents from the understaffed agency led to delays in the investigation.

He told the Times that the process “really started to unfold” when Wright contacted him March 13 for an interview. Adams had previously had trouble reaching her, he said. A week later, he interviewed Le Grand.

His report on the agency’s systemic issues was postponed at Monday’s meeting.

The board remains committed to “transparency, accountability and meeting the expectations of the taxpayers who fund our mission,” Tampa City Council member and board chairperson Luis Viera told the Times.

“HART serves as a lifeline to so many in our community,” he said. “And the men and women who make HART run are second to none. We have so much to fight for in this process.”