- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating Metro's hiring of high-priced consultants, the second federal investigation into the matter.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said his agency's inspector general began the probe after The Washington Times reported Feb. 1 that a top Metro official had hired a consultant under a $100,000, noncompetitive contract that grew to $333,065 without the Metro Board's knowledge.

"When this issue came up, I asked … to make sure Metro was doing what they should be doing, looking at it and making an assessment and, where necessary, taking any appropriate actions," Mr. Slater told reporters and editors at The Times on Friday.

"You have to look at the specific facts of the case. In that context, our IG [inspector general] is someone I rely on. I expect him to do his job."

Mr. Slater said he has not been directly involved in the investigation and did not know its status.

Transportation spokesman Jeff Nelligan said the inspector general's investigation has nearly concluded. He had no details on its findings and said he did not know when the results will be released.

The Times first reported that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) started investigating Metro's hiring of consultants March 8. Both federal investigations follow an internal Metro inquiry that found no wrongdoing.

However, Metro procurement director Francis X. "Buddy" Watson last week was suspended for two weeks for approving the noncompetitive contract for consultant Wayman H. "Ray" Lytle. It was not clear whether Mr. Watson's suspension is with or without pay.

Mr. Watson declined to comment about his suspension when reached at his home Friday. Metro employees said Mr. Watson is a "fall guy" for others involved.

Metro General Manager Richard White and Metro Board Chairman Gladys Mack, who represents D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, have both characterized the Lytle contract as a simple oversight.

Federal investigators are looking into Metro's hiring of 108 consultants at a cost of $25 million a year while the transit authority has laid off about 100 in-house workers because of a lack of work for them to do.

The consultants, who include a $53-an-hour clerk and $168-an-hour engineers, do much the same work as the laid-off employees but at two to three times the cost.

The union that represents Metro's professional employees has filed a grievance against the transit system for hiring consultants for work that should be done by its members.

The Transportation Department's inquiry is focused primarily on the Lytle contract.

Metro Assistant General Manager Panagiotis P. "Takis" Salpeas hired Mr. Lytle, a former federal procurement officer, soon after Mr. Lytle sent a Sept. 30, 1988, letter welcoming Mr. Salpeas to Washington.

Mr. Salpeas, whom Metro had hired 11 days earlier to head Transit System Development, wrote a note to Deputy General Manager Gail Charles in the margin of Mr. Lytle's letter asking her to hire "my boy" or "my buddy," Metro sources said.

Mr. Salpeas, who said he has known and worked with Mr. Lytle for years, said he had written "Mr. Ray" but scratched it out and wrote "Lytle" instead.

The scratched out words are illegible in copies of the document, and Metro officials said they have lost the original document.

Mr. Salpeas and Miss Charles endorsed the Lytle contract, saying the consultant was essential to meet Metro's goals. Mr. Watson quickly approved the contract even though two auditors criticized Mr. Lytle's $165 an hour and lack of justification for his high rate of pay.

Within 14 months, the Lytle contract grew from a $100,000 part-time deal into a $333,065 full-time obligation. Mr. White ended the contract in January after The Times inquired about it.

Last month, Metro changed its procurement procedures to require consultants to justify all their fees or else be denied work at the transit authority.

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