Metro settles with CFO who raised concerns about management at SORTA

Allegations included unethical behavior, theft

The former chief financial officer for Cincinnati’s Metro bus system got a $50,000 settlement from the transit authority after accusing her boss of retaliating against her for raising concerns ranging from unethical behavior to theft.

Lou Ann Hock accused Metro CEO Terry Garcia Crews of shutting her out of management decisions after Hock objected to “certain actions and conduct” of Metro’s top management, according to a March 5 letter from her attorney, Stuart Dornette, to Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board Chair Suzanne Burke. The settlement agreement directed $40,000 to Hock and $10,000 to Dornette's law firm. SORTA operates Metro and Access buses. WCPO obtained Dornette's letter through a public records request.

Hock’s allegations led to an outside review by the Dinsmore & Shohl law firm, which Metro declined to release citing attorney client privilege. Burke said Hock's accusations also led the SORTA board to address some “leadership issues” with Crews, a transit industry veteran who became Metro’s CEO in 2010.

Crews declined an interview request.

“We had concerns raised to us, we took immediate action and then we took appropriate action as a result of that report,” said Burke, who also is CEO of the Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio. “We didn’t let any time lapse after having those concerns shared with us.”

When asked if the board has confidence in Crews, she said: “I believe as a result of the leadership issues we addressed, yes we do.”

Burke declined to be more specific and said the matter is resolved as far as the board is concerned, a sentiment echoed by Sallie Hilvers, SORTA’s executive director of strategic communications.

“Under the terms of the settlement, it is Metro’s position that the matter has been resolved,” Hilvers said.

The president of a union representing about 650 Metro employees wasn't happy to learn about the settlement.

"They say they're broke then they pay out $50,000? For what?" said Troy Miller, president and business agent for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627. "If nothing was done wrong, why would you pay it? I don't get it."

Allegations Were Not Made Public Earlier

The issues raised in Dornette’s March 5 letter have never been publicly addressed by Metro because they were handled in executive session board meetings where media and Metro staff were not invited. Dornette is a partner at the Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a law firm downtown. He declined to comment for this story, except to say that his client received an “amicable settlement.”

Among the allegations in the letter:

• Hock alleged that Crews improperly approved a 2012 travel voucher for Michael Ongkiko, former executive director of human resources, who accepted a paid trip to Minnesota from United HealthCare last summer, when the managed care company was negotiating a renewal of its $11 million contract with Metro. Hock refused to sign the voucher, saying it violated SORTA policy and Ohio ethics law. Ongkiko left Metro in May for a new job in Utah. Metro has since reimbursed United HealthCare $1,415.83 for the trip.

• Dornette wrote that the son of a Metro union leader “was given a job even though he did not meet the company’s standards for employment.” When Hock objected to the hiring, Chief Operating Officer Inez Evans told her “the hiring had not worked out, that he was a troublemaker, and he was no longer employed.” But Hock learned otherwise and reported it to Crews, who took no action. “As far as Mrs. Hock knows, he is still on the payroll,” Dornette wrote.

Metro declined to identify the union leader, but Hilvers said the employee is still on the job. She said SORTA has no prohibition against the hiring of family members as long as one relative doesn’t supervise another.

• Hock objected to Crews’ handling of a 2011 discrepancy in bus token revenue that led to a Cincinnati police investigation with no charges filed. Dornette described it as “a Brinks employee’s theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars of Metro tokens” in his March letter and asserted that Crews opted not to pursue “negligence and breach of duty claims” against Brinks and Huntington Bank, which handled Metro’s bus token revenue.

A Brinks Cincinnati office manager did not return a call seeking comment about the matter. A Huntington Bank spokeswoman referred to the Cincinnati police investigation that found no evidence of theft.

Hilvers said outside counsel was hired and Cincinnati police were called when Metro employees noticed that bus tokens were being sold on streets near the Hamilton County Courthouse.

“I don’t think it was ever substantiated that there was money missing,” said Hilvers. “Tokens have been around forever.”

Metro ended its use of tokens in December and installed new fare boxes in early 2012.

Hilvers said that gives Metro better ability to track revenue by “fare media,” including transit cards, change tickets and cash.

SORTA Does Not Admit To 'Any Liability Or Violation'

Hock’s settlement agreement says SORTA does not admit “any liability or violation of any law or statute,” but settled “merely to avoid litigation.” Each of the parties is banned from making disparaging remarks about the other.

SORTA received no deficiencies in its most recent triennial review by the Federal Transit Administration, a feat that is considered rare in the industry. Hilvers said SORTA has won numerous awards for its approach to financial reporting.

Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost’s office hasn’t received any complaints or information about any such problems at SORTA, said Brittany Halpin, a spokesperson for the office.

The last time the state audited SORTA was in 2011, and its audit was released in July 2012, she said. The state is auditing SORTA again now, she said.

“If anyone sees something that they just don’t think is right,” she said, “they should contact our office.”

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