Rail Against the Machine

Valley Metro Rail consultants have been complaining for 14 months.
Martha Strachan

A top Valley Metro Rail manager is accused of repeatedly pressuring consultants on the light-rail project to hire a particular engineering firm — even though the consultants complained that the manager had a conflict of interest under federal law.

The consultants first notified Valley Metro Rail executives of the alleged conflict 14 months ago, according to records. But only after New Times put in a public records request for the complaints did Valley Metro Rail officials decide to convene an independent panel to investigate.

It's not clear what kind of conflict, exactly, the consultants are alleging. Records show only that two consultants on the project, PBS&J/Wong and S.R. Beard & Associates, told the agency that they could not contract with a Minnesota-based firm called Transit Systems Development, or TSD, after learning of an alleged conflict of interest between the firm and Valley Metro Rail's director of design and construction, Vicki L. Barron.

The firms aren't talking, and Barron wouldn't address specifics.

And while Valley Metro Rail officials offer repeated assurances that the consultants' discomfort is a minor matter that hasn't slowed light-rail construction, they're far from forthcoming with details. Never mind that 14 months have passed. Until the panel is done, says John Farry, Valley Metro Rail's director of community and government relations, they really can't say anything.

"We will let the panel do its job and report its findings when the process is completed," Farry told New Times in an e-mail.

The panel will meet for the first time next week. It will look into the allegations against Barron, Farry wrote, as well as "whether the situation was handled correctly" once it was brought to the agency's attention — which should presumably address whether Valley Metro Rail was right to wait so long before reaching this point.

Since everybody official has gone so quiet in the meantime, the paper trail has to speak for itself.

In the more detailed of the two letters obtained by New Times, the light rail's contract administration consultant, PBS&J/Wong, complained that it had alerted the agency about the conflict in May 2005. But one year later, the company wrote, Barron "has continued to aggressively pursue any and all means" to hire TSD.

The consultants cited a law that says federal transit money can't be used to hire employees, their family members, or their partners. Contractors or government employees who violate such laws can face disciplinary action, according to Federal Transit Authority regulations.

In its April letter, PBS&J/Wong wrote that Valley Metro Rail had assured the firm that it wouldn't be pressured to hire TSD. But when PBS&J/Wong refused to hire TSD for utility relocation, Barron downsized its scope so that utility work was no longer included, the company said.

PBS&J/Wong described Barron's actions as "undue and unnecessary pressure."

But it seems clear that no investigation took place.

Instead, in the 14 months after the first contractor complained, Valley Metro Rail CEO Richard Simonetta recommended Barron for a raise. Twice.

He also quietly met with PBS&J/Wong in May — and apparently convinced the firm to withdraw the complaint it filed in April.

Yes, according to Valley Metro Rail, the consultants' allegations of "undue and unnecessary pressure" are no longer public record.

As a licensed engineer for more than 20 years, Vicki Barron started her career with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, then took a job in 1999 as an engineer with the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit then being built in Minneapolis.

Since opening in 2004, the Minneapolis rail line has been acclaimed as a national success. And in her six years on the project, Barron advanced rapidly. By the time construction started wrapping up in 2005, she'd been twice promoted and was supervising 60 employees, according to her résumé, which New Times obtained through a public records request.

Around that time, Barron sent a letter to Valley Metro Rail, which was then getting started on the light-rail line now under construction in Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix. She was looking for a management position.

Three weeks later, Valley Metro Rail offered Barron a job as director of design and construction. Charged with supervising consultants and contractors on the 20-mile construction project, Barron was hired at $142,260 annually.

Back in Minnesota, Barron had worked with a man named Jurgen Sumann. Sumann did extensive consulting work on the Hiawatha project, from 2000 to 2005, according to his résumé. (In 2002, he formed his own company, Transit Systems Development, according to records filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State.) When he submitted his qualifications to work on the Valley Metro Rail project, he listed Barron as a reference.

If two of Valley Metro Rail's consultants are to be believed, upon arriving in Arizona, Barron set out almost immediately to get Sumann work here.

Indeed, records show that Barron started work March 30, 2005. PBS&J/Wong, Valley Metro Rail's construction administration consultant, alleges that Barron first began pressuring it to contract with Sumann's firm that April.

In May 2005, Valley Metro Rail actually gave TSD "notice to proceed" on a utility job worth $150,000. Sumann flew to Phoenix and submitted expenses and invoices for five days' work. Valley Metro Rail paid the bills — but then abruptly withdrew the company's contract.

Valley Metro Rail officials won't comment on anything having to do with Sumann's work. But the reason appears to be complaints from PBS&J/Wong.

"A potential conflict of interest was brought to our attention that unless unfounded would reflect negatively on the work of our joint venture, your agency, and public interests, if we were to contract with TSD," two of the company's engineers would later write.

In June 2005, a second consultant, Stephen Beard of S.R. Beard & Associates, wrote Simonetta to say that Valley Metro Rail staff had asked his company to hire on TSD for utility relocation.

"Unfortunately, a potential conflict of interest has been brought to our attention that unless unfounded, would not reflect positively on the work of our joint venture or your agency," Beard wrote.

PBS&J/Wong engineer Edward C. Jensen did not return calls for comment. Reached by phone, Beard declined comment.

Two weeks after receiving Beard's letter, in June 2005, Valley Metro Rail staff met with both consulting companies, according to PBS&J/Wong's letter. According to the letter, agency staffers promised that the companies would face no pressure to hire TSD.

But that didn't happen, PBS&J/Wong wrote in April 2006. "In recent months, Ms. Barron has again pressured [us] to contract with TSD."

When the company wouldn't hire TSD for a particular piece of work, PBS&J/Wong wrote, that work was removed from its scope. PBS&J/Wong also alleged that Barron was trying to hire TSD for a job as systems manager.

Despite the extensive record of complaints, there's little indication Valley Metro Rail took the matter seriously until recently.

A New Times public records request June 9 seeking any e-mails, letters, or correspondence referencing the accusations came up empty.

Indeed, Barron continued to receive excellent evaluations even after the letters of complaint were filed. Simonetta rated Barron "outstanding" and "highly competent," the agency's top two ratings, in every category of her March 2006 review. (In terms of "compliance with policies," Simonetta ranked her "highly competent.") Simonetta also recommended Barron for a 3 percent raise, although it's not clear whether the raise was approved.

This June, two months after PBS&J/Wong's letter, and a month after Simonetta's meeting with that firm, the CEO again gave Barron high rankings, including another "highly competent" rating for compliance with policies. He again recommended her for a raise.

It wasn't until after New Times made its public records request, as Farry confirms, that the agency's board of directors was even told about the allegations.

(Sources say that the board, which includes the mayors of Mesa and Tempe and representatives from Phoenix and Glendale, has not been given copies of the letters.)

Tom Simplot, the Phoenix city councilman, was elected chairman when he joined the board in April. He defends Valley Metro Rail's handling of the matter, saying that he believes light-rail officials did look into the allegations when they were first raised last year.

The independent panel that will soon begin meeting is the result of new information, he says, not necessarily something that should have been addressed last year.

"At this point in time, I trust that management is doing everything they should be doing," Simplot says. "These are seasoned professionals. I can't imagine they haven't encountered other management situations like this. They have the experience to investigate the matter and handle it professionally."

Neither of the phone numbers that Sumann has on file with Valley Metro Rail and the Minnesota Secretary of State are in service; he did not return a message left with a former business partner.

But Barron, for one, says she welcomes the inquiry.

"I'm grateful an independent panel has been formed to look into this matter, and I'm confident I'll be vindicated," she said Friday. "It's time that this gets put to bed."

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