To hear Mayor Annise Parker tell it, it's only a matter of time before Metro's president, Frank Wilson, is gone.
At a press conference yesterday where the mayor announced her nominees for new Metro board members, Wilson was the hot topic. Parker had just returned from Washington, D.C., where she met with Ray LaHood, the federal Secretary of Transportation, and Parker said that LaHood was concerned with the amount of federal money Metro is set to receive -- $900 million -- considering all "the turmoil on this end."
The turmoil is Metro getting all wrapped up in allegations that Wilson has a girlfriend, his chief of staff, and that he spent taxpayer money on her. Like the time the pair went to Spain to meet with a rail-car vendor.
Now Metro is paying a lot of money to have an outside consultant investigate these accusations. Furthermore, at a Metro meeting earlier Thursday, board members authorized the agency to pay for any legal expenses Wilson racks up when he's defending these allegations against him.
And all this comes while Metro is busy convincing everyone that it did not illegally shred documents, and making sure everyone knows that the lawyer it fired was fired only because she was an evil boss.
So the feds are becoming a little concerned while they're getting ready to send all that money, Parker said, "any day now." (Metro has been saying that it would get its full funding agreement any day now for about a year, but perhaps Parker is correct.)
The mayor said, "The Secretary of Transportation made it clear that any changes would help any current uncertainties."
She said the feds weren't pushing for the Wilson to be fired, but it sure sounds like it would help.
Then there's that whole contract thing that Wilson was given, one that could grant him $40,000 a year for the rest of his life if he's fired.
"He does have a golden parachute that will have to be worked through," Parker said, adding that she didn't want to talk about the details of Wilson's contract. "I'm not an attorney, that's why I surround myself with them."
And she certainly does. Of her five Metro board nominees, two are attorneys.
One nominee, Dwight Jefferson, most recently worked as a litigation attorney with a practice that included, according to his resume, "representation of clients in negligence, products liability, employment, commercial, medical malpractice and environmental cases." In 1995, Jefferson was also appointed to serve as a civil district court judge in Harris County.
Another nominee, Carrin Patman, is an attorney whose "recent litigation experience includes: defending former directors of a publicly traded oil and gas exploration company against allegations of a breach of fiduciary duty; defending a publicly traded energy company against claims of breach of contract and fraud in connection with its drilling program; defending a major energy company in a series of fraud and breach of contract lawsuits involving the sale of natural gas...." And the list goes on.
It's tough to say how these lawyers will help direct public transportation in Houston, but the mayor did explain that their lawyering experience will help them ask the tough questions that Metro staff need to be asked. Perhaps those questions will include, "Tell us again, why the hell do we need to pay for you to take your girlfriend to Spain? Allegedly?"
Christof Spieler, who has written about transportation issues for the Citizens Transportation Coalition, whom Parker called a "talented amateur in urban transit," was another nominee for the Metro board.
For those who follow Metro closely and like to take sides on certain issues, Spieler could be considered "pro-rail," and from the press conference, it didn't sound like any of the board nominees have any plans to put the brakes on any of Metro's rail projects.
In fact, the man who chaired the mayor's Metro transition team said just that: "There's nothing to suggest right now that anything should be slowed down."
But maybe the new board will also continue to improve bus service, something that Metro critics have said is falling way down the priority list as Metro pumps cash into the rail. Allen Watson, an engineer and another Parker nominee, said he took the bus a couple times from his home that's close to downtown to his office at Highway 290 and Tidwell. The trip took him about two and a half hours.
"The trip was fundamentally difficult," Watson said. "We might need to look at doing something different."
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