Metro’s year-long search for a new general manager hit another major snag Monday as the transit agency and its top choice for the job, corporate financial expert Neal S. Cohen, called off their contract negotiations and parted ways.
The agency’s four-member executive committee, which is conducting the search for a new chief executive, gave no reason publicly for the collapse of the discussions, and Cohen could not be reached Monday night for comment.
A Washington-area transportation official said he was told that Cohen — a career financial executive in private industry who has no experience in the public sector — was angry and taken aback by the media scrutiny he has been under since last Wednesday, when reporters learned that he was Metro’s No. 1 candidate for the job.
It was unclear Monday to what degree, if at all, the leaking of his name to the media and the resulting publicity had a part in terminating the contract discussions between Cohen, 55, and the executive committee of Metro’s governing board.
In February, when Metro appeared to be on the verge of choosing a new general manager during an earlier phase of the search, media coverage of the imminent hiring caused the process to fall apart, with several finalists withdrawing from consideration.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) reacted strongly to the failure of Metro’s talks with Cohen.
“I am outraged by the latest setback in a process that would be comical if the need for new leadership at Metro were not so great,” McAuliffe said in a statement Monday night.
“The leaks and petty political sniping that have come to define the work of this board are harming the Metro system and the economy of the region it serves,” he said. “The time has long past for the [Metro] board of directors to bring this process to a close, or for the governments that comprise the system to find board members who will.”
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced in a brief statement late Monday that the search would shift to other candidates.
“WMATA and Neal Cohen have mutually agreed that Mr. Cohen is no longer under consideration to become WMATA’s general manager,” the board’s chairman, Mortimer L. Downey, said in the statement. “The executive recruitment process to determine who will lead WMATA remains ongoing, and discussions with candidates are actively underway.”
Downey added: “For that reason, we will not comment further on the search, except to say that the Board remains committed to completing the process as quickly as possible.”
Cohen, a chief financial officer for an aerospace company until last winter, was a chief financial officer for Northwest Airlines and US Airways in the early and mid-2000s, at the nadir of the airline industry’s struggle to remain financially viable.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the council’s transportation committee, criticized Metro board members and their seeming ineptness.
“You know that ‘Peanuts’ cartoon where Lucy pulls the football out from Charlie Brown? That’s how I feel,” Cheh said. “It has the feel of Keystone Kops, with everyone running off in different directions. It does not inspire confidence.”
A week ago, before Cohen emerged as Metro’s top pick for the job, officials familiar with the search said the transit board’s executive committee had winnowed the field of candidates to two finalists. The other candidate was Paul J. Wiedefeld, who was ousted in July as chief executive of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Whether he is still a candidate was not clear Monday.
Wiedefeld, who was BWI’s top official from 2002 to 2005, was chosen to head the Maryland Transit Administration in 2007 by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Wiedefeld returned to the BWI post in 2009, then was fired after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took office this year. In a brief interview last Tuesday, Wiedefeld would not comment on whether he was in the running for the Metro job. “I’m applying for lots of jobs,” he said then.
Metro has been under interim leadership since January, when then-General Manager Richard Sarles retired. The process of finding a replacement began four months earlier, in September 2014, when Sarles announced his intention to step down.
The board initially was focused on hiring a traditional transit executive who is grounded in engineering and the day-to-day operation of a transportation agency. But in January, when Hogan and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took office, they made it clear that they wanted Metro’s next general manager to have a proven track record in financial management, given Metro’s array of money problems.
Considering Metro’s chronic operational and safety shortcomings, however, Virginia officials continued to call for a new general manager with expertise in the transportation field and a record of instilling a strong organizational safety culture.
In February, when the board was close to choosing a new chief executive from among three finalists who were all conventional transit managers, the candidates withdrew after potentially identifying details about them were leaked, despite Metro’s efforts to keep such information confidential during the selection process.
Board members said the candidates were top transit officials elsewhere. If it became public that such an official applied for the Metro job and was turned down, that official’s current position could be greatly undermined, members said.
Some officials said at the time that they suspected the information was leaked in an effort to disrupt the search and scuttle the hiring of a traditional transit executive.
The choice of Cohen satisfied both sides in the debate. Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said last week that he was pleased that the board was focusing on a candidate with a long résumé of top financial jobs. Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said he approved of Cohen because of his experience in the airline industry.
Unlike Cohen’s private-sector positions, the job of general manager of the nation’s second-busiest subway entails daily media scrutiny, which began in earnest for him last week.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), one of Metro’s strongest supporters and toughest critics, said board members should have done more to keep Cohen’s name confidential while the contract discussions were going on.
“This is a troubling pattern,” Connolly said in a statement. “The inability of the governing body of Metro to secure good candidates, and to protect them during the interviewing and screening process, is very troubling, and unfortunately parallels the narrative of increasing unreliability, inefficiency and plummeting ridership confidence.”
Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.