An executive of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light-rail contractor is married to a high-ranking Metro official, a relationship that prompted the transit agency to try to isolate the official from the lucrative contract.
That relationship, and a request for executive Sallye Perrin’s correspondence and travel records are among the issues that may arise in a hearing scheduled today on a judge’s order forbidding Metro from destroying documents in an open records request.
Perrin is married to Metro official John Von Briesen.
Metro attorney Gene Locke asked state District Judge Al Bennett this week to invalidate the temporary restraining order obtained by Houston attorney and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley. Locke argued that Kelley’s request for the order was based on “mere speculation.” Bennett has not ruled on the motion.
In May 2009, three years after Metro hired Von Briesen as a rail program director, the California-based construction and engineering firm Parsons won a $1.4 billion contract to design, build and operate four light-rail lines for Metro. The agency began discussions with Parsons after reporting in 2008 that it couldn’t come to terms with its first choice, Washington Group International.
Parsons hired Perrin as vice president and manager of project development for its rail and transit systems division in May 2004, according to a company news release.
Von Briesen’s current title at Metro is senior director, light-rail transit package.
His salary is $194,021, the 10th-highest within the agency.
Metro officials, recognizing a potential conflict, instructed Von Briesen in July 2006 to stop working on the rail projects included in the contract Parsons was seeking. Von Briesen signed a memo agreeing, among other things, not to talk to his wife about business included in the contract.
Von Briesen now works on issues involving the University rail line, which is at an earlier stage of development and isn’t included in the Parsons contract, Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts said.
“Von Briesen has had no involvement in the contract negotiations, selection or execution of the contract with Parsons and has had no direct line of decision in the administration of the contract,” Roberts said.
A telephone call seeking comment from Von Briesen at Metro was not returned, and Parsons referred all questions about Perrin to Metro.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the marriage of a government agency official to an executive of a company seeking a contract with the agency could pose problems on two levels.
The first would involve the government employee exerting influence over the selection process, which Metro tried to prevent through its instructions to Von Briesen in the 2006 memo. The second potential conflict would arise if the government employee supplied information helpful to the prospective contractor, Smith said.
“Was she benefiting from inside information that he was able to provide her?” Smith asked, noting it can be difficult for people to restrict their conversations at home and in the workplace. “The second most powerful form of communication, after pillow talk, is water-cooler talk.”
Locke’s motion in the Kelley case provides some new details in Metro’s account of the sequence of events that roiled the agency last week.
It states that Metro’s employee advocacy officer had documented prolonged unsatisfactory performance by Pauline Higgins, Metro’s chief counsel, who was fired five days before Kelley obtained the restraining order against Metro. Locke said the officer’s report, based on interviews with 13 Metro employees, described unacceptable turnover in Higgins’ department and stated: “It was troubling to hear how Pauline had manipulated and caused so much fear into some of her past and present employees.”
Instructions on tape
Higgins’ attorney, Rusty Hardin, has accused Metro of firing Higgins because she tried to persuade the agency to comply with legal document retention requirements.
In another development, KHOU (Channel 11) reported it had obtained a videotape in which a former Metro attorney, Jakki Hansen, provided instructions on destroying employee e-mails.
The report quotes Hansen as saying on the tape: “The public information requests require a lot of digging … and if we have a consistent destruction policy, if we’re getting rid of documents as we should, then our response can truthfully, honestly and legally be, that we don’t have certain documents.”
Metro fired Hansen last week. The agency said Hansen stated during her exit interview that certain Metro documents had been shredded, but this wasn’t the reason she was dismissed.