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Metro derailed by culture of complacence, incompetence, lack of diversity

‘Inept get promoted, … capable get buried’

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First of three parts

Ninety-seven percent of the bus and train operators at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority are black, with only six white women out of more than 3,000 drivers, according to Metro documents — a lack of diversity at one of the region's largest employers that has led to an acknowledgment of failure in affirmative-action documents and spawned a series of lawsuits.

The homogeneity, interviews with dozens of current and former Metro workers indicated, is a proxy to a clubby culture of favoritism in which merit has little to do with promotions, and accountability, such as noting safety violations, is a career death knell. In typical examples, court and Metro records show, a black man who spent eight years in prison for dealing PCP was promoted to a high-level management position soon after his release, and whites in the same positions as blacks with far less seniority are inexplicably paid less.

With Metro's budget chronically strained and reports of mismanagement coming more regularly than trains, interviews and internal records depict a likely root: an environment in which hardworking employees are actively excluded and those who rise are those willing to do the bare minimum — never causing a stir by flagging rampant safety violations, reporting malfeasance or proposing improvements.

"When the accident happened in 2009, I called a supervisor and said, 'Is this the one we all dreaded?' The way workers do their jobs, we all knew it was a matter of time. … The inept get promoted, and the capable get buried. Smart people were put in the corner, ostracized and given nothing to do," said Christine Townsend, who sued Metro for discrimination and won.

It is a culture in which a white male engineer near completion of a Ph.D. was passed over for a management position in favor of a black man who was barely literate, multiple staffers said.

"The average rider wouldn't believe the things that go on. There are so many easy things we could do to make the system better," a station manager said. "But they'd never put me in charge because they know I'd make sure others actually did their jobs. They don't want change. It's go along to get along."

Metro is a quasi-public agency that receives funding from the federal government, Maryland, Virginia and local jurisdictions to operate a regional bus and rail transportation system in the national capital area, but is not beholden to rules that apply to fully governmental entities. With a $2.5 billion operating and capital budget for fiscal 2012, Metrorail serves 86 stations and has 106 miles of track, while Metrobus serves the nation's capital with 1,500 buses.

Metro's affirmative-action plan notes that the 1.4 percent of its bus and train operators who are Hispanic and the 25 percent who are female of any race are "less than reasonably expected." It does not make note of the 1.5 percent who are white.

Even in entry-level occupations typically dominated by Hispanics, there are virtually none at Metro. Only one laborer out of 67 is Hispanic; of 540 landscapers, carpenters and cleaners, only 22 are Hispanic. In the national capital region, Hispanics make up 13 percent of adults and blacks comprise 25 percent; white women constitute 29 percent.

"The odds of such a disparity occurring by chance are statistically infinitesimal," Ronald A. Schmidt, a lawyer representing 12 white women exploring a class-action lawsuit, wrote in a 2003 letter. "There appears to be an entrenched network of African-American employees at WMATA that is able to steer jobs, promotion, training and other career enhancing benefit to persons of their own racial or ethnic group."

The average Metro worker had a $60,000 salary, which rises to $69,000 including overtime. That is more than 71 percent of area residents who had an income in 2010, including 62 percent of whites, census records show.

No recourse

White and Hispanic employees who allege discrimination have found a deaf ear at Metro's civil rights office, whose 17 employees are black. Until at least 1999, that office tracked complaints via a handwritten ledger on a series of taped-together sheets of paper, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. The system "made determining statistics impossible," said a civil rights employee from the time.

In recent months, such antiquated record keeping has allowed employees to steal thousands of dollars that electronic systems easily could have detected — and in more than one case, a culture of complicity has kept prosecutors from trying those who were caught because they feared no clean witness or proper records could be found.

"There's a strong sense of nepotism, and it is the culture of Metro," the civil rights employee said. "It was more of a buddy system than it was merit-based."

Metro did not respond to requests for information about workforce demographics. Asked about a court case in which a woman alleged she was sexually harassed by a man about whom Metro had received complaints from multiple women but did nothing, and that many workers are not given sexual-harassment training, spokesman Dan Stessel would not deny the charges but pointed to the agency's legal response, which also did not deny the charges but noted the statute of limitations had expired.

First-line managers

Of a dozen senior supervisors overseeing the rail division in 2007, 10 were black and two were white, and five black supervisors, all with less than a year of tenure in the position, were paid more than both whites, who had more seniority — one with 20 years — personnel records obtained by The Times show.

The group making more money includes senior supervisors such as Orlando Terrell King, who has been charged with reckless endangerment and fraudulently attempting to obtain a driver's license, according to Maryland state records. Mr. King, who is paid $62,536, was promoted by Metro to oversee those who drive trains carrying thousands of passengers daily.

Also rising rapidly to senior supervisor was Robbie O. McGee, who spent eight years in federal prison for felony distribution of PCP while on probation for another crime. He received five pay increases at Metro in two years.

"There's a problem with the first-line supervisors and possibly above actually enforcing basic discipline. When a supervisor walks into a kiosk on Sunday when the game's on and asks where's the TV and brings a plate of food in, there's a disconnect," a former union representative said.

The personnel record of the white male senior supervisor, Robert Fish, meanwhile, indicates strict standards and scrutiny, including suspensions and severe reprimands for minor infractions such as possession of a covered cup of coffee.

Anti-elitism

Ms. Townsend had a college degree and a decade of experience as a schoolteacher when she was passed over for a training job in favor of a man who had taken some community college courses and, it turned out, could barely write a sentence.

She sued Metro and won, but retired from the rail department in 2005 after another personnel decision that seemed to have nothing to do with merit. By that time, she had earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. But when a position as head of training arose, it went to someone whose most relevant experience was as secretary at a community college, she said.

It is not just that mediocrity is overlooked. Dozens of employees whom Metro rules forbid from speaking to the media said: Diligence is discouraged, because anywhere one looked was something that needed to be fixed — and change, especially when it involved work, was anathema to senior Metro line workers.

For example, Ms. Townsend said, by 2004, many trains were operating without radios in defiance of federal rules. Other drivers confirmed that was common knowledge. So she authored a study and included a recommendation that Metro start substituting cellphones.

"I was read the riot act: 'You had no right to compile these statistics,' even though it was my job. They didn't want people showing problems," she said.

Her capacity as trainer gave her a vantage to long-term impact of the workplace culture.

"Some new people, especially earlier on, would come in so enthusiastic, like little boys who liked to have toy trains. But when you put them out there with a supervisor who didn't care about anything except covering his butt, it killed their enthusiasm" she said.

Pencil-whipping

Days after a Red Line accident killed nine in July 2009, Brenda Whorton drew the line.

"I told them I wasn't going to pencil-whip for them," she said, referring to a technique so common in Metro culture that there is a term for it. "It means fudging it: like marking down that a motor's according to specs when it's not." It is common for midnight-shift workers to "lock the doors and go to sleep, because they've got other jobs," and equally common for supervisors to turn a blind eye, she said, leading to pencil-whipping of the inspections they're supposed to be doing — and delays for morning riders.

"Anyone who blew the whistle or caused any trouble, when pick time came — every six months you pick shifts — you'd be moved. They spend more time trying to manipulate this stuff than they do doing their job."

Dozens said white workers, especially women, were openly subject to racist and sexist remarks without repercussion — behavior that drove many targets to seek transfers or leave the agency. All said they have been inexplicably passed over hundreds of times for promotions to positions such as station manager while others with less seniority passed them by.

"I was the only white woman in car maintenance out of 338, and they made my life miserable," Ms. Whorton said, adding that colleagues once electrified a track circuit on which she was working and laughed. "Nothing happened to them."

Union dues and don'ts

In its affirmative-action plan, Metro management contends that union policies dictate who receives jobs, stifling ability to provide diversity. "Unless these protected groups are already employed in the collective bargaining food chain, good faith efforts to transfer or promote them are non-existent. This scenario further creates a vicious cycle with more of the same groups being promoted or transferred," managers wrote.

Most workers are required to join the Amalgamated Transit Union 689, and a curious arrangement allows many managers to retain their affiliation with the union, creating an alliance in which disciplining poor-performing workers is discouraged.

"To write someone up within the 689, you just don't do that," Ms. Whorton said.

The union has acknowledged that many employees are aware of safety issues and theft and do not report them because of a culture in which retaliation is common. It says that's impropriety from management and that the union will work to protect whistleblowers if they ask.

Union President Jackie L. Jeter noted that the union isn't in charge of hiring and said that whites, women and Hispanics must not be applying for jobs.

"If Caucasians or Hispanics want to put in for jobs, they have ample opportunity to apply — and once they become bus operators, they can go work in Southeast," she said.

White women say those words are uttered repeatedly to those who apply for jobs and those in their first years, but that it is more of an attempt at intimidation than a reality.

Union leaders sometimes invoke racial language, including Mrs. Jeter, who heads the $20 million union with her husband, Roland Jeter, second in command. Graphics on the union's website have depicted her in her role as union president alongside photos of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

A flier circulated as Mrs. Jeter was running for election claimed she worried that "too many whites might end up in charge. She also told me she was sick and tired of hearing about the Latino Caucus."

When a worker says he or she has been treated unfairly by Metro, the union membership holds a vote to decide whether to defend the worker, typically obtaining reductions in punishment from management for or voting to take to arbitration more than 40 complaints monthly.

Court records show that a white woman, Denise Brooks, was fired after her wallet was stolen from an area accessible only to employees. She reported the theft, then asked to modify the report to better reflect the contents of her wallet after checking bank records. A supervisor said the update amounted to lying and fired her, a move that ultimately was overturned.

When Mrs. Brooks brought problems about the way she was being treated to the union, records show, the membership voted twice to deny her grievances.

Court records show many of those who get into trouble at Metro for fighting, drugs and the like and have disciplinary actions reversed at the union's behest, meanwhile, already have documented track records of similar behavior. A newsletter boasts, for example, that the union won reinstatement with back pay for a train operator if she completed a drug class. But a search of her name in criminal records indicates that far from this being an isolated incident, the woman has a well-documented drug and theft problem.

"That was a court problem, not a Metro problem," Mrs. Jeter said, adding that it wasn't the union's job to address professionalism — that is done by performance reviews that reward the best workers with raises. "Professionalism is rewarded when you get your paycheck."

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