Head Rolls Finally

For 14 months, Valley Metro Rail sat on complaints that its top construction manager repeatedly pressured contractors to hire a particular engineering firm.

On Monday, October 16, after hearing from an independent ethics panel convened after New Times questioned the complaints, Valley Metro Rail fired the manager.

Director of Design and Construction Vicki L. Barron had been with the light rail agency less than two years.

New Times began looking into complaints about Barron this summer after obtaining letters that two engineering firms had written Valley Metro Rail CEO Richard Simonetta ("Rail Against the Machine," July 20, 2006).

The letters complained of "undue and unnecessary pressure." They said Barron had repeatedly pushed them to hire a small Minnesota firm called Transit Systems Development — even though the engineers believed that the hire would violate federal conflict-of-interest laws.

The project manager at Transit Systems Development, Jurgen Sumann, worked under Barron on the light rail line in Minneapolis, where she was a manager. Sumann lists her as a reference on his proposal for Valley Metro Rail work.

When one firm refused to use Sumann for utility relocation, it alleges that Barron downsized the company's scope of work so utilities weren't included.

But despite the engineers' concerns, Simonetta did little to investigate. Even after receiving the first letter, the CEO twice recommended Barron for raises — and, after getting the second letter, Simonetta met quietly with the engineering firm and persuaded the company to withdraw it.

Fourteen months after the first complaint was received — and just after New Times started asking questions — Valley Metro Rail finally convened an independent panel to investigate. That panel recently finished its report, although Valley Metro Rail claims it's not a public record yet.

The panel was also supposed to examine whether Valley Metro Rail handled the complaints correctly.

Through a spokesman, CEO Simonetta declined comment. Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot, chairman of the agency's board of directors, did not return calls for comment by deadline for this story. Simplot had not yet been appointed to the board when Simonetta received the complaints.

Until her termination, Barron earned $142,260 a year. After moving to Phoenix last year, she purchased a $525,000 home near South Mountain.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske