Thursday, July 5, 2001

A former Metro administrator has filed a lawsuit accusing a top transit agency manager of discriminating against her because she is black and a Jehovah’s Witness.

Betty J. Wallace, a former office administrator for transit system development, claims in her lawsuit that her former boss — Assistant General Manager Panagiotis T. “Takis” Salpeas — passed her over for promotion and forced her out her job because he wanted to hire a “blue-eyed blond.”

The lawsuit, which seeks Ms. Wallace’s reinstatement, back pay and compensatory damages, was filed in U.S. District Court on April 25 — the same day Metro agreed to settle a more than $100,000 sexual harassment claim against Mr. Salpeas.

Last year, Mr. Salpeas came under fire from Metro’s board of directors after The Washington Times reported he had authorized the hiring of a consultant under a $100,000 contract that ballooned to more than $330,000 without the board’s knowledge.

Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann declined to comment on Ms. Wallace’s lawsuit, which names only the transit authority as the defendant. “The matter is in litigation, and we do not comment on matters that are in litigation,” he said.

Mr. Salpeas has declined comment.

Ms. Wallace told The Times that top Metro officials had long ignored her complaints about Mr. Salpeas. “In the spring of 1999, I told an upper-level manager … that I believed Takis was racist and was attempting to force me out of his department. Management did nothing to help me.”

She said she repeatedly told Mr. Salpeas she could not attend holiday parties because her religion forbids it. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe some religious holidays are based on pagan traditions and do not celebrate birthdays because it would elevate oneself, she said.

“He kept trying to nudge me to go, but I had already discussed that with him. He got visibly upset. He got angry,” said Ms. Wallace, who began her Metro career as a secretary in 1975 and received “outstanding” performance evaluations as an office administrator.

What’s more, she said in her lawsuit that Mr. Salpeas hired as a secretary a white woman who failed Metro’s word-processing test over two black women she recommended who passed the test. He later promoted over her a white woman whom Ms. Wallace had trained.

Ms. Wallace, 51, complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which found “cause to believe that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority discriminated against [her] based on her race and religion,” the lawsuit states.

Metro Board Chairman Decatur W. “Bucky” Trotter said he intends to hold an executive session today or tomorrow about the series of charges against Mr. Salpeas. “There is definitely a concern about Takis and his methods of operation, and we have expressed that,” he said. “We will meet to clear the air.”

Mr. Trotter said he has spoken with fellow board members. Many of them, sources said, are concerned about Mr. Salpeas’ behavior and the money Metro has paid because of his actions.

Mr. Salpeas, who earns as much as $170,100 a year, was hired from the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco by Metro General Manager Richard A. White in September 1998.

Immediately after taking over the transit systems department, Mr. Salpeas authorized the hiring of part-time consultant William H. “Ray” Lytle under a $100,000 contract that quickly grew to more than $330,000 without the board’s knowledge, The Times reported in January 2000. Mr. White ended the Lytle contract after The Times’ inquiries.

On Tuesday, The Times reported that Metro agreed to pay middle manager Kim Hazel between $100,000 and $150,000 to settle her sexual harassment claim against Mr. Salpeas. Miss Hazel, who kept a detailed log of the harassment, accused him of trying to kiss and grope her at various times and of making sexual advances toward her.

Sources close to the matter said Cynthia Myers, director of Metro’s civil rights office, and Metro attorneys determined after an investigation it would be better to settle than go to trial. The settlement requires that neither Miss Hazel nor Mr. Salpeas discuss the deal with anyone and that she resign from Metro by Jan. 1.

Ms. Wallace’s lawsuit states that Mr. Salpeas promised her she would be promoted as his executive assistant and told her to hire a secretary in 1998. She recommended two black women who passed Metro’s tests, but Mr. Salpeas instead hired Mary Knight, a white woman who failed the Word Perfect test.

Ms. Wallace asked Mr. Salpeas why he rejected her choices and he said he wanted a secretary who would “complement” her. Edgar Sugg, a Metro employee, told Ms. Wallace that Mr. Salpeas said he did not want a black secretary, the lawsuit states.

Mr. Salpeas also told Mr. Sugg that he wanted to hire a ‘blue-eyed blond’ in order to present the right image ‘out front,’” the lawsuit states.

Ms. Wallace said in her lawsuit that in December 1998 Mr. Salpeas transferred Linda Stroffregen, a white woman with blond hair, from another office to assist her. Ms. Wallace said she trained Miss Stroffregen and then in April 1999 Mr. Salpeas promoted Miss Stroffregen as his executive assistant.

Ms. Wallace said in the complaint that Mr. Salpeas “forced her out” by asking other managers if they had a job for her. In June 1999, Leona Agouridis, assistant general manager of communications, called Ms. Wallace and offered her a job.

“Knowing Mr. Salpeas was seeking to force her out … and believing she had not other choice, transferred to Communications in June 1999,” her lawsuit says.

The lawsuit states Ms. Wallace’s pay grade was lowered, but Mr. Feldmann said Metro kept her at the same scale when she transferred. The lower salary mentioned in the lawsuit was the result of “a clerical error” that “inadvertently listed her pay grade as 13 instead of 17 as it should have,” Mr. Feldmann said.

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