2010 Turkeys of the Year

Metro chief Frank Wilson is our biggest gobbler.

You'd think, in the eighth year of the Houston Press Turkey of the Year awards, that we'd be running out of candidates.

Luckily, this is Texas. Not only that — it has been Texas in an election year, with a (black) Democrat in the White House. Turkey madness!!

Rush Limbaugh honored as an Honorary Texan. Glenn Beck rallying the Tea Partiers at the Alamo. The governor of the state dropping hints about seceding from America because...he loves it?

But all the Turkeyness was not restricted to the political arena. Sports came through as always, as did entertainment and government bureaucracies.

But, hey, let's end the suspense and get right down to it.

Turkey of the Year: Frank Wilson

Frank Wilson rumbled in from New Jersey to run Metro, and he brought with him a management style straight from The Sopranos: Cut a few corners here and there, maybe, but whatever you do, don't talk about the family business.

Wilson loved to talk about "transparency" at Metro, but apparently the New Jersey definition of "transparency" is "Who da fuck are you to be asking me questions?"

As a result, just what Wilson had been doing at Metro didn't become clear until he left this year, shortly after discovering the new mayor actually cared about being a watchdog over the agency. She replaced Wilson with longtime good-government guy George Greanias, and it was only when the howls of aghast horror were heard from Greanias's office as he reviewed operations that the actual picture became clear.

Greanias immediately went on a goodwill tour of constituency groups and media, listening in disbelief at the horror stories he heard about how the agency was perceived and how it interacted with outsiders.

Whether he can turn it around and build a light-rail system in tough economic times remains a question, but he will be spending his tenure cleaning up after the gigantic mess left by Frank Wilson.

How does one become a Turkey of the Year? One way is to run a massive transit agency so badly that it becomes the subject of gubernatorial-race political ads airing in Austin, El Paso and Lubbock.

Not everyone can pull off such a feat, but Frank Wilson could.

We asked our Metro beat writer, Paul Knight, to offer the five greatest jaw-dropping moments of Wilson's tenure. His take:

Frank Wilson's Five Worst Moments

Frank Wilson was hired at Metro to do one thing: Expand Houston's light-rail system at any cost. He resigned this year without building an inch of rail during his tenure, leaving the agency with mountains of debt and in the middle of a federal investigation that resulted in the light-rail program grinding to a halt. Counting down to the worst moment of all:

5. The Secretive Parsons Contract. The first step in Wilson's light rail plan was finding a company to actually build the thing. Wilson's Metro negotiated with one transit company for two years before that company unexpectedly backed out. In March of 2009, Wilson and the Metro board were set to vote on a $1.46 billion contract with a new company, Parsons Transportation Group.

The trouble started when the public wanted details of the contract — paid for with tax dollars — before Metro voted on it. Wilson and Metro held firm, and wouldn't make anything about the contract public until after it was approved. The worst part was that Metro, at the time of the contract's approval, wasn't sure how it would be paid for, and Wilson simply assured everyone that Metro would surely be getting a lot of federal money in no time.

4. The Trip to Spain. Along with the Parsons contract, Wilson had to hire a rail-car manufacturer to build new rail cars for the planned rail lines. Wilson settled on CAF, a company headquartered in Spain, and after the contract was signed, Wilson, along with his alleged girlfriend, Joanne Wright, traveled to Spain for "business." The trip ultimately resulted in a couple lawsuits and local and federal investigations. Metro hired an outside firm, at $310 an hour, to investigate Wilson's business expenses, and in that firm's final report, Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing. Of course, the investigation only looked at what Wilson charged to Metro, and Wilson's and Wright's airfare to Spain was not included in the report.

3. Metro Shredding. After attorney and former city controller Lloyd Kelley requested documents from Metro in January of this year but didn't get what he wanted, he sued the agency with the belief that public documents were illegally being destroyed. Turns out Metro was shredding documents, but agency officials contended that the shredding had nothing to do with the documents requested by Kelley.

But a judge issued a restraining order against Metro, ordering it to stop destroying documents. The Harris County District Attorney, with help from the FBI, launched an investigation and "raided" Metro's offices for documents. The whole thing also revealed that Metro didn't have an official policy for document retention. Pauline Higgins, the head of Metro's legal department, was fired. Wilson and Metro publicly smeared Higgins, saying that she was fired because she was a bad manager and bad employee. E-mails later revealed that Higgins was questioning Metro's practice of destroying documents, and Higgins filed a lawsuit against Metro. The Kelley suit was settled by Metro, the DA dropped its investigation and Metro was cleared of any wrongdoing. Higgins's case is still active.

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