Alleged harassment, discrimination by CEO of North County Transit District

Alleged harassment, discrimination by CEO of North County Transit District

NCTD is a public transportation agency funded by millions of dollars of taxpayer money, overseen by elected officials from within the county and ultimately accountable to the people of San Diego.
Former managers at the North County Transit District, which provides more than 12 million passenger trips a year via train and bus routes in San Diego County, have sworn under oath that the district’s top boss harassed and bullied older female employees while maintaining it was “one of the perquisites of power” to hire younger women who were “easier on the eyes.”

The managers’ declarations are part of an ongoing lawsuit by an NCTD human resources employee who was laid off after five years. Virginia Moeller filed the suit in 2013 alleging age and gender discrimination and accused the district of failing to protect employees from the actions of its CEO, Matthew Tucker.

Moeller’s is the second lawsuit alleging age and gender discrimination filed in two years against the agency that runs the county’s Coaster, Sprinter, Lift and Breeze services.

Under questioning in his deposition, Tucker said he couldn’t recall many of the conversations witnesses described, or he denied they took place. inewsource asked Tucker for an interview but he did not respond. Instead, NCTD’s lawyer sent an email stating “NCTD’s position is made very clear by its Motion and supporting evidence.”

In the motion, NCTD’s lawyers argued the declarations from the “disgruntled” former employees are “inadmissible” and “irrelevant” to the case and the agency “disputes the truth of these stories.” NCTD argued the declarations did not directly concern the plaintiff, Moeller, but rather other women at the agency and that Moeller admitted Tucker never made any age or gender-related remarks directly to her.

Matthew Tucker

NCTD Executive Director Matt Tucker speaking to the press after the SPRINTER shutdown in March 2013
Photo by Nic McVicker | KPBS

Since Tucker’s arrival at the agency in 2009, NCTD has lost nearly every senior manager to resignations, layoffs or firings; has seen its two most deficient federal transit reviews; has experienced scathing audits of its contracting and disabled bus service departments and has gone through arguably its biggest public relations disaster ever with the shutdown of its Sprinter light rail service in 2013.

The depositions in the Moeller suit offer rare on-the-record statements. Most former employees have been reluctant to talk about the alleged internal chaos out of fear of endangering severance packages, which prohibit them from disparaging their former employer.

Richard Hannasch, the agency’s former chief financial and administrative officer and highest ranking former official among those deposed, said in his sworn statement he addressed violations of employment policies and legal requirements with Tucker but was told repeatedly by the CEO that he thought it was unlikely the board of directors — his boss — would discover his actions.

“And he told me on more than one occasion,” Hannasch said, “that if the Board did find out, he would plead ignorance of any requirements.”

NCTD’s board of directors is composed of nine people, one representative from each city in the district plus county Supervisor Bill Horn, and nine alternates. inewsource emailed all 18 for comment on the story.

Only Tony Kranz, a city councilman from Encinitas, responded.

“It’s very likely that your list of questions will be asked during the trial and there will be cross examination of each witness,” Kranz wrote. “I will not be commenting on the allegations, but will certainly comment when the legal process has run its course.”

The board of directors voted unanimously in December to grant Tucker a $20,000 bonus and annual $10,000 raises over each of the next four years subject to a minimum “satisfactory” performance.

Tucker’s gross salary, according to NCTD documents, will rise to $259,000 in December.

Multiple allegations

With Moeller’s lawsuit, the total number of former NCTD employees who have alleged gender and age-based discrimination, harassment or bullying by the CEO stands at six — three from the Moeller lawsuit, plus the district’s former chief technology officer, its former grants specialist and its former manager of bus operations.

“I questioned Mr. Tucker about violations of NCTD policy or legal requirements. His typical response, which he repeated to me frequently, was to state ‘It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.’”

—Richard Hannasch, former NCTD CFO

Moeller attributed NCTD’s recent exodus of upper management, which inewsource has documented in previous stories, to Tucker’s “knee jerk” hiring and firing.

“It was just chaos,” Moeller said at one point in her deposition. “Just chaos.”

She said that on more than one occasion Tucker inserted himself into the hiring panel selection process, overriding his staff’s recommendations and picking less-qualified applicants based on personal preferences. “He was all for not following the rules,” Moeller said.

Hannasch recalled Tucker boasting about being impervious to employee lawsuits because NCTD’s legal budget allowed him to “grind down” on anyone who sued him, forcing them to give up or agree to a small settlement. Hannasch declined to comment further on his declaration when contacted by phone, but added “my comments were a sworn declaration.”

Moeller and Hannasch worked at NCTD during a tumultuous period — between 2010 and 2012 — when Tucker cut staff by 80 percent and outsourced bus operations to a private contractor.

Since that time, NCTD has gone through two Federal Transit Administration triennial reviews, which monitor compliance with federal grants. The first review found more deficiencies (seven) within the agency than at any point in the district’s history. Inspectors found nearly twice as many (13) this year.

Three consulting firms under contract with NCTD found the district’s disabled bus service failing its passengers and its contracting department rife with inefficiencies.

The Sprinter light rail service, which connects Escondido to Oceanside, was knocked out of commission for several months in 2013 due to overlooked faulty brake rotors.

NCTD’s long-standing multimillion-dollar contract with its security force was cut last year after inewsource found the majority of the officers to be untrained and unprepared for an emergency.

Nearly every senior manager at the agency has left since Tucker arrived, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance, benefits and costs to rehire.

Internal policies at NCTD require that if a job reopens, recently laid-off staff would be placed on re-employment lists in order of their seniority. Moeller and NCTD’s former manager of bus operations Kim Stone alleged they were laid off and then passed over for rehire due to their age and gender.

Stone sued in April 2012 and NCTD settled with her for $55,000 in January 2013, admitting no wrongdoing.

Also in 2012, NCTD’s chief technology officer, Angela Miller, resigned in a detailed letter sent both to human resources and the board of directors. She alleged harassment and bullying was becoming “endemic at the agency” leading to an “incredible turnover rate.”

“Plaintiff’s Opposition consists largely of ‘facts’ that are inadmissible, immaterial and irrelevant to any issue raised in the motion. NCTD declines to respond to the irrelevant facts.”

—Tim Watson, Attorney for NCTD

“I fear for the long-term viability of the agency if course-correction does not occur,” Miller wrote.

Hannasch said in his sworn statement that he witnessed Tucker harass Miller and later told the CEO that his actions had crossed the line into age and gender discrimination.

“Mr. Tucker was angry and defiant,” Hannasch recalled, “and said derisively, ‘What is she going to do, sue me?’”

Tucker said during the deposition that whatever happened between him and Miller “was very innocent by both parties.”

According to NCTD’s current Chief Administrative Officer Karen Tucholski’s deposition, the agency never investigated the harassment claims by Moeller, Miller or Stone.

Perquisites of power

Also under oath, Susan Lockwood, NCTD’s former manager of safety & risk, said Tucker harassed, demeaned and bullied several female employees. One of them — former policy director Julie Austin — he repeatedly called “grandma” and a “used-up has-been,” according to Hannasch.

In his deposition, Tucker said he and Austin “had a really good relationship” and that they were joking. Austin did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

“If the Court were to consider these statements, the declarations fail to present admissible evidence of the ages of any of the third party women referenced in the stories.”

—Tim Watson, Attorney for NCTD

Lockwood said in her declaration NCTD’s former clerk of the board and executive assistant Jill McNaughton teared up after Tucker demoted her. Tucker “commented that he doesn’t understand why she was so upset when, after all, she’s ‘on the tail-end of her career, and wasn’t looking for any challenges.’” Tucker said he didn’t recall making the statement.

Lockwood said she observed Tucker “cause several such employees to leave NCTD, either by intimidation, or outright layoff, only to see them replaced… by substantially younger females.”

Hannasch was more blunt in his declaration:

“Mr. Tucker stated several times that one advantage of reducing the number of older employees was that NCTD could hire younger female employees who were ‘easier on the eyes.’”

“Mr. Tucker indicated that this was one of the perquisites of power,” Hannasch said.

Lockwood also described instances she termed “bullying.” She said Tucker held three or four “all hands” management meetings each year where he would update staff on one of the agency’s many reorganizations. These sessions, she said, became more negative as time went on, with “open humiliation and bullying” that showed Lockwood that her boss “was capable of the harshest treatment of his subordinates.”

These included instances when Tucker would allegedly “pick on” or “ridicule” employees at staff meetings, pit employees against each other and tell women to dye their hair in order to “help their career.”

An update on the lawsuit

inewsource sued NCTD last year for results of a management assessment that sources said validated leadership deficiencies highlighted in inewsource’s ongoing investigation of the agency. NCTD paid the Rady School of Management $31,200 to perform the assessment, and the agency refused to release it citing privacy and personnel exemptions.

inewsource lost in San Diego Superior Court, but won the case on appeal in May and is awaiting a copy of the assessment summary.

Justice James McIntyre said at the hearing that he thought releasing the documents would be of some benefit to the public.

“If you need improvement in this many categories,” he said, looking at the study’s results, “you must not be a top rate or even a medium rate organization.”

And if you disagree, he suggested, “I don’t know what planet you’re on.”

The management study should be turned over to inewsource within the next two weeks.

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About Brad Racino:

Brad Racino is a senior reporter and assistant director at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email bradracino at inewsource dot org.