The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has contracted with the law firm Carlton Fields to undertake an independent investigation of complaints about wrongdoing by the agency’s new CEO, Benjamin Limmer.
Limmer is currently on paid suspension after a whistleblower complaint emerged at the beginning of the month.
Carlton Fields’ investigation is expected to continue into 2020, but the contract between HART and Carlton Fields indicates that “time is of the essence.”
The contract instructs attorneys to “conduct the investigation as quickly and efficiently as possible” but does not include a specific deadline noting attorneys should have sufficient time to be thorough.
The scope of the contract includes “reaching factual findings in regard to the allegations as well as evaluating whether, based on those factual findings, any of client’s policies has been violated including but not limited to procurement, travel and all other allegations in the complaint.”
Upon the conclusion of its investigation, Carlton Fields is expected to render a legal determination in regards to the specific complaints alleged in the whistleblower report and provide an oral report of its findings.
The firm must also, if requested, provide a written report of its findings.
The contract did not reveal additional details over the accusations against Limmer, but reiterated previous information that suggested problems with Limmer’s handling of procurement and travel.
Carlton Fields is also expected to provide advice and recommendations on how to address its findings, if necessary.
The firm is also responsible for maintaining confidentiality under HART’s whistleblower policies and state Whistleblower laws.
The firm “shall do all things possible to ensure confidentiality of the investigation, complaint, complainant, documents, statements of witnesses and all things related … until the conclusion of the investigation.”
Attorneys undertaking the investigation include Gwynne Young, Lori Baggett, Cathleen Bell Bremmer, Erin Hoyle and Samantha Lambe.
The firm is authorized to bill $350 an hour for its services up to $100,000 total cost.
Following his suspension, Limmer said he welcomed the investigation to promote transparency.
Limmer has been with the agency just seven months. He was hired earlier this year after a protracted executive search to replace former CEO Katharine Eagan who left the agency in late 2017 to head the Port Authority for Allegheny County in the Pittsburgh area.
His hire came at a pivotal moment for HART as it was preparing plans for a windfall of new revenue related to the All For Transportation 1 percent sales surtax voters approved last November.
The HART Board tapped Carolyn House Stewart as interim CEO pending the investigation.
It’s unclear what effect Limmer’s suspension and the ongoing investigation will have on the agency’s plans to move forward with additional spending to expand the agency’s countywide transit service. It’s likely the possible scandal could raise concerns among critics of the All For Transportation tax about HART’s ability to effectively manage the $253 million spending plan the agency previously approved under the new All For Transportation revenue.
That revenue is also in jeopardy as the Florida Supreme Court determines whether to uphold the tax, which is being challenged by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and resident Bob Emerson.