The MCTO Follies, Continued...

WHEN THE METROPOLITAN Council Transit Operations "restructured" former bus company Police Chief Paul Wallace out of a job last week at about the same time it was reinstating Deputy Chief Dave Hubenette after a two-month paid suspension, it was difficult to determine whether it was another in a long line of public relations blunders at MCTO or a message to employees that efforts to ferret out potential theft and wrongdoing at the bus company would not be good for their careers.

Wallace was in charge of the transit police when it launched an internal investigation into allegations of massive theft, waste, and fraud approximately five years ago ("The Great Bus Robbery," 10/25/95). Although few employees were caught and prosecuted, the cost of inventory purchases fell by more than $2 million during the time Wallace's department conducted its inquiry. Yet Wallace was placed on developmental training leave for more than a year beginning in August 1994. Former bus company Police Captain Richard Lindgren, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against MCTO, claimed he was demoted and Wallace put on leave because they were going to close out the investigation by sustaining complaints against members of management. MCTO paid Lindgren $125,000 to settle the suit in December.

Meanwhile, MCTO had hired former prosecutor and Republican spin doctor Thomas Heffelfinger, ostensibly to look into the theft allegations. Heffelfinger's report made it plain that the focus of his probe was the transit police department itself, particularly Wallace, whose management techniques were heavily criticized. Wallace now claims that the Heffelfinger report "is full of factual errors, in some cases I think intentionally so." Wallace's attorney, Marshall Tanick, calls the report "a legal Molotov cocktail."

After more than a year on leave, Wallace finally returned to work this fall, but in an ambiguous position related to budget matters over at Met Council headquarters. In December, he was assigned a new management classification that enabled the Council to terminate his position two months later without giving a reason, an action Tanick describes as "a massive manipulation of the system." Met Council administrator Jim Solem counters that Wallace was let go because he was not the right person for the newly created job as director of public safety at the Council. He acknowledged that Wallace, a 14-year veteran of the bus company, was not asked to apply for the position nor offered any other job at MCTO. Asked if the Heffelfinger report was a factor in the decision not to retain Wallace, Solem says, "not specifically," but adds that "it was taken into account, among a lot of other things."

"You constantly hear from the Met Council that they want to clean things up over at the bus company. Well, Paul Wallace is the one person who knows where all the dead bodies are buried over there and they couldn't find a single job for him," says Lindgren's former attorney, Robert Hill, who also has two other suits outstanding against MCTO and may be advising Wallace and Tanick in any upcoming legal action they take. "When I was researching the Lindgren case, I found that Paul Wallace kept very detailed records and that you could corroborate what he said with [MCTO] employees. He was going to be a great witness for me," Hill says.

It is ironic that as Wallace was being cut out of a job, the man who'd replaced him as acting police chief in 1994, Dave Hubenette, was returning to work. Hubenette's two-month paid suspension arose from an entirely different matter--his involvement in an X-rated, video strip poker game on bus company computers. In announcing his reinstatement, Solem said that Hubenette has been reprimanded for that episode.

"Back in December, Curt Johnson issued a press release saying women employees had every right to complain about sex discrimination in this matter," says Hill, who is representing two women who have filed suit over the video game. "Now, after reprimanding him and giving him two months paid vacation, the Met Council is putting him back in charge of the same people who complained. It's as insensitive and improper a move as I've seen. But the people who really should be complaining are the taxpayers, because they are going to be footing the bill to defend things that have already provoked a reprimand." Hill believes that the Met Council has put itself in that position because "they realize they better protect Hubenette; he has the power to tell the truth about his superiors, both during the Wallace investigation and in what happened after Wallace was moved out of the department."

 
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