Train Wreck

How Metro and its president Frank Wilson got so far off track.

But Brown was long gone by the time his building opened, because in 2003, when Houston voters approved the big referendum to expand the rail, they also elected Bill White. After White appointed his new members to the Metro board, the agency needed a new president to replace the outgoing DeLibero.

Frank Wilson was hired.

Like DeLibero, Wilson came from New Jersey, where, for almost a decade, he served as the head of the New Jersey Department of Transportation. And like DeLibero, Wilson came to Houston with a shaky start. Just a few months after he arrived, an investigative commission in New Jersey released a report titled "The Making of a Procurement Disaster," which largely questioned Wilson's management integrity.

Frank Wilson was hired by Metro after a huge plan to expand light rail was approved.
Courtesy of Metro
Frank Wilson was hired by Metro after a huge plan to expand light rail was approved.
Light rail construction is slowly moving across the city's east side.
Bryan Williams
Light rail construction is slowly moving across the city's east side.

The transportation department under Wilson's leadership, the report stated, "unfolded against a backdrop of events and circumstances that evidence the taint of multiple conflicts of interest."

"One extraordinary and untoward event that occurred during Wilson's watch as NJDOT Commissioner was his acceptance of a job offer from an engineering company that [had done] considerable business with the State of New Jersey..."

Wilson was working for that firm, based in California, when he accepted the job at Metro. (Wilson later hired an executive from that company to work as a $2,400-a-day consultant to help Metro build light rail.)

But that baggage didn't matter when Wilson arrived at Metro, because he was brought to Metro, like DeLibero, to do one thing: get the new rail lines built in a town that was still wary of public transportation, and still very wary of light rail.

"Wilson was just a gunslinger who doesn't like to follow the rules," says Paul Magaziner, a Houston businessman who has become one of the biggest Metro watchdogs in the city. "They knew it when they hired him. That's why they hired him."

Over the last several years, Magaziner has basically transformed his Richmond Avenue printing business into a Metro war room. Few people in Houston have collected as many documents and information on the agency.

His crusade against Metro started after Wilson arrived and released his plan for rail expansion, which included four new lines, with an estimated cost of $2 billion. Like the Main Street line's goal of opening before the 2004 Super Bowl, Metro said it wanted the new lines built by 2012, leading many to believe that the city was using light rail as an attempt to draw the 2012 Olympics to Houston.

A huge part of Wilson's plan included $900 million in funding from the federal government. The money was key for cash-strapped Metro's ability to pay for the projects, but would also open the agency to more federal scrutiny. Metro struggled from the start.

Magaziner often spoke at Metro board meetings about the agency's inability to finance the big rail plans.

Sometimes Magaziner simply sums up Metro with, "They're broke," or more often, "They're fucked."

On January 27, 2010, Houston attorney Lloyd Kelley, who had previously served on Houston City Council and as the City Controller, filed an information request with Metro under the Texas Public Information Act.

Kelley asked for, among other things, expense reports from Wilson and Wright when they traveled. He also wanted e-mails that were sent between the two.

Kelley made news in 2008 when, as part of a lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Office, he requested e-mails from District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. In the e-mails from Rosenthal's county computer, Kelley found pornographic and racist material, as well as embarrassing romantic e-mails between the district attorney and a female co-worker.

Rosenthal resigned a couple weeks after the e-mails surfaced.

In the Metro case, Kelley alleged that Wilson had a relationship with Wright and that when the couple traveled together on Metro business, Wilson illegally spent taxpayer money on her.

Metro eventually sent Kelley the documents he suggested, but Kelley wasn't satisfied; he believed that Metro hadn't sent everything that was available, or, worse still, someone had destroyed the documents he requested. So, he filed a lawsuit against Wilson.

"Let's see the truth of the backup documents," Kelley's attorney, Michael West, told the Press. "I have no reason to trust them."

A criticism of Metro for years has been that the agency is unwilling to cough up public information, even to city officials. Roger Allen, a nationally recognized transportation consultant who has testified in several cases involving Metro crashes, has worked on cases with Metro where attorneys have requested documents that could be used to study crashes, and, eventually, make Metro safer. Getting the information was never easy.

"It frustrates me because I can't do my job, because of Metro hiding documents," Allen says. "It's like Metro says, 'Yeah, we got the documents, but you got to find it.'"

Turns out, Metro officials were shredding documents, but Metro contended that doing so wasn't illegal. At one press conference, Metro board Chairman David Wolff said, "The shredding had nothing to do with the Kelley documents."

But a judge issued a restraining order, stopping Metro from destroying any more documents before Kelley's lawsuit could be heard in court. It's scheduled for trial at the end of May.

In the midst of the Kelley lawsuit, Pauline Higgins, a top attorney with Metro who had been hired to "clean up" Metro's legal department, was fired. Oddly, Metro broke from protocol and publicly discussed the firing, contending that Higgins was terminated because, basically, she was a bad boss. Also, Metro said that Higgins used company time to plan a charity golf tournament.

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