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Zurik: Newly hired RTA CEO has trail of ‘retaliation’ complaints, including a six-figure settlement to keep complaint quiet

Updated: Nov. 24, 2020 at 10:00 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - On the job for just over a year, Regional Transit Authority CEO Alex Wiggins already has allegations of retaliation, like those at his previous public transit jobs, uncovered by FOX 8 Investigates.

Wiggins was hired in New Orleans in May 2019 after being selected by the board out of a field of eighteen candidates with decades of experience, some with prior experience in New Orleans.

Before New Orleans, Wiggins was the Chief of Security and Law Enforcement at LA Metro. On May 2, 2019, the Los Angeles County Counsel’s Office wrote Wiggins after an investigation was conducted following multiple employees reporting concerns of a hostile work environment and retaliation. According to the document, the investigation found that Wiggins engaged in abusive, humiliating, demeaning behavior.

The investigation revealed his department was ‘riven with racial tensions’ ‘low morale’ and serious rifts between employees and managers.

“[He] made my life a living hell,” one former employee said.

FOX 8 spoke with one woman who did not want to be identified but did allow us to say she is a Hispanic African American. In Los Angeles, she received a promotion at LA Metro and after that, she said Wiggins, her superior, called her to his office.

“When I went to his office, he asked me to close the door,” she said.

The woman said Wiggins told her he went to bat to get her more money for the new job.

“He held onto the desk, pushed the chair back, opened his legs and said ‘you owe me big time’,” she recalled Wiggins telling her. “and I said ‘excuse me’ and he went back and said ‘you owe me.’ I said ‘I don’t owe you anything.’”

She took that encounter as a sexual advance. Wiggins told FOX 8 via e-mail “such an allegation is insulting and wholly false. I have never disrespected an employee in any form.”

The woman said after that encounter in Wiggins’ office he made her work life difficult, retaliating against her.

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Six days after the County Counsel’s letter informing Wiggins of the investigation against him and informing him “appropriate action will be taken” Wiggins sent his resume to the RTA in New Orleans, applying for the CEO position. In his letter and resume to the RTA Board, he mentioned how he improved morale at LA Metro, even though the investigation found otherwise.

“That’s not true [that he improved morale],” the former employee said. “Not true at all. The rule of the game was do as I say or suffer the consequences.”

Two and a half weeks after applying, the RTA hired Wiggins, a New Orleans native, signing him to a contract with a salary of $225,000 a year.

But Los Angeles was not the first time allegations of retaliation were raised against Wiggins. Before LA Metro, he worked for Metra, a commuter train service in Chicago.

In 2013, Wiggins was placed on administrative leave with pay. A Chicago Business Report story from that time said Wiggins was placed on leave “pending a review of certain personnel matters in which he was involved.”

Metra employee status forms obtained by FOX 8 from Wiggins’ personnel file do not indicate why he was placed on leave, and the Personnel Record Review Act in the State of Illinois allows for disciplinary documents to be removed from a personnel file after four years.

But records obtained from Metra showed one complaint, allegedly made by a Metra employee, urging the board to place Wiggins on leave and investigate his actions.

The employee said that ‘implied threats of retaliation, firing, re-organization, demotion and being outcast by those in power” were occurring in the agency. The employee told the board “you must act immediately.”

Three months later Wiggins resigned from Metra, still on leave from the agency.

“It raises the question with me, if we could find this out so easily from his two prior employers, why didn’t RTA know about it,” Joel Friedman, Tulane Law Professor, said. “Or if they knew about it, why would they hire him? It doesn’t make any sense.”

After his hiring in New Orleans as RTA CEO, Wiggins hired Jared Munster as Chief Administrative Officer. But records we obtained show that relationship quickly turned confrontational, with Wiggins eventually firing Munster.

Munster’s attorney filed a complaint, sending the RTA and government leaders a letter, detailing a hostile workplace, where Wiggins retaliated against subordinate employees, similar to the findings in the Los Angeles letter.

The letter says Munster reported several questionable practices that Wiggins engaged in, including an example of Wiggins “directing work toward a contractor” to Vanir Services, a company Munster said Wiggins had a previous relationship with.

Documents we obtained show on Sept. 19, 2019, the RTA solicited companies to submit proposals to serve as a project manager consultant for new ferry boats. Thirteen days earlier, Vanir Construction Management submitted a proposal letter, before any other vendor appeared to know about the request. Vanir received the contract work.

Munster told Wiggins he reported this to the New Orleans Office of Inspector General, that’s when Munster said his employment was terminated.

The RTA settled the complaint filed by Munster and paid him $140,000, including $5,000 for his attorney.

“I can understand why RTA would settle this case if they thought there was something there,” Friedman said. “Just to settle it and make the guy go away we call this a nuisance case, a nuisance settlement, you could do that, but that’s a small number – it’s not $140,000.”

Wiggins declined our repeated requests for an interview, but in an e-mail told us,”I did nothing wrong while at LA Metro or Metra in Chicago. I believe the source of your story is engaged in a coordinated effort to embarrass me and others. Implying that I engaged in wrongdoing is simply unfair.”

On the issue of the contract being awarded to Vanir, Wiggins said, “Yes, it is entirely permissible for me to encourage firms to bid. In this case I encouraged a DBE firm (disadvantaged business) to submit a bid.”

But according to records with the City of New Orleans Vanir is not a registered DBE firm.

FOX 8 asked the RTA Board Chairman, Flozell Daniels, for an interview. Daniels appeared to open our e-mail, but he never responded, leaving our questions unanswered about whether he and the rest of the RTA board knew about Wiggins’ past and what he thinks about the six-figure settlement paid for with public money.

Tulane Law professor Joel Friedman said while there may be certain topics that are protected by personnel privacy, the board should explain something about this situation.

“Seems as part of their fiduciary responsibility, they should say something about this,” Friedman said. “They certainly should be saying why they hired him in the first place, what processes they invoked in considering his application for employment, and whether the consequence of this settlement had any impact on their decision to retain him --- that is certainly something that they should answer.”

Dr. Munster did not have a comment on this story when reached by FOX 8′s Lee Zurik. We also reached out to Vanir Services about putting in for a job before bids were opened, but they did not respond to our request for comment.

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