Ever since the Denver Gazette first broke the story in Colorado that the organization Phil Washington last headed is under investigation in Los Angeles County, Mayor Michael Hancock’s office has circled the wagons around its appointee to become Denver International Airport’s CEO.
Washington left his post as head of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the end of May, after his contract was up. But before he left, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant on the organization and the county's District Attorney confirmed its Public Integrity Division is reviewing the matter.
The investigation surrounds LA Metro’s contractor Peace Over Violence, which handled the authority's “Off Limits” sexual harassment counseling hotline, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. The story notes that: "While it is unclear what exactly the Sheriff’s Department is investigating, Metro’s sole sourced, no-bid contract with Peace Over Violence for the sexual harassment hotline has faced (media) scrutiny recently."
That media scrutiny came from a Fox television station, which reported in September: “A months-long FOX 11 investigation has revealed that an L.A. Metro sexual harassment hotline operated by a local charity is currently costing taxpayers more than $8,000 per call after a series of no-bid contracts to operate the hotline were awarded to the best friend and campaign donor of L.A. County Supervisor & Metro board member Sheila Kuehl after her office privately pushed for Metro to hire the charity.”
Hancock nominated Washington, the former head of the Regional Transportation District until 2015, to be DIA’s next chief executive. Washington would replace current CEO Kim Day, who is retiring in July after 13 years in the position. Washington would need to be approved by the Denver City Council.
The Mayor’s office this week started lobbying council members about Washington, including addressing the investigation.
“All claims against Mr. Washington specifically were found to be baseless,” according to an email sent to council members after the Denver Gazette published the story Tuesday. “He is not the subject of any criminal or grand jury investigation, nor is he named in any criminal warrant, nor does he participate in, or belong to, any organizations that exclude or discriminate against women or LGBTQ people. Authorities in Los Angeles have confirmed with our office that these allegations are completely unfounded.”
The email, obtained by the Denver Gazette, included a letter of support from the LA County Supervisor (similar to a county commissioner in Colorado) who was named in the Fox story, Sheila Kuehl.
“I am aware that one of our gadflies who have been attempting to tarnish (Phil Washington’s) image and his extraordinary work in LA County has contacted you and the (Denver) City Council and made an outrageous claim concerning his lack of support of LGBTQ+ staff and constituents,” according to Kuehl’s June 14 letter.
She went on to outline Washington’s, and LA Metro’s, support of the LGBTQ+ issues. She shared that she was the first openly gay member elected to the California Assembly.
“I have no doubt that Phil’s commitment is genuine and profound, and that he will be a strong ally to the LGBTQ+ community wherever his career takes him next,” the letter stated, and closed with Kuehl inviting Denver council members to contact her if they had questions.
The email stated Washington had been thoroughly vetted by Mayor Hancock's office, as well as national authorities: “Our confidence in his qualifications and character is unwavering. We will not respond to bloggers who seek to impugn his reputation. Clearly, the Biden-Harris transition vetted Mr. Washington carefully prior to naming him to head their transportation transition team, and so did we. In fact, Mr. Washington has earned and maintains some of the nation’s highest level security clearances, both civilian and military, including an active top federal security clearance. Prior to his nomination, he passed a background check and reference checks at the highest level. In this regard, he is one of the most vetted mayoral appointments in the administration.”
An LA Metro spokesman initially declined to provide details about the status of the investigation, saying only: “Mr. Washington left his post as Metro CEO at the end of May 2021. We do not have any updates from our previously released statement.”
But late Wednesday, LA Metro’s Dave Sotero sent the following statement: “These allegations emanate from a Metro employee who had her subordinates removed from her supervision during Mr. Washington’s tenure as CEO, following an HR investigation into concerns with the employee’s management style and skills. The employee initially claimed that she was discriminated against because she is Caucasian, but she has abandoned those claims and has now sued LA Metro alleging various whistleblower complaints about contracts at the agency. Those complaints have been shared with law enforcement. The agency is not aware of any improprieties related to the awarding of any of these contracts. The main contract in question was managed by the employee herself, and her complaints were aired only after her subordinates were removed by Metro. The Los Angeles Sheriff is seeking records related to that contract, which is with an organization headed by a woman who sits on the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission and has been highly critical of the Sheriff’s Department.”
Council members are set to start meeting with Washington as soon as next week. His appointment could be put on the council's agenda in mid-July.