The agency — which is still reeling from the incident, in which one person died and scores of passengers were hospitalized — also is dealing with the botched search for a new chief executive.
Metro officials declined Monday to say how much they are paying the firms — O’Neill and Associates, whose roster includes the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Hill + Knowlton Strategies, which has previously done work for the transit agency.
In response to questions about why the firms were hired, Metro spokeswoman Morgan Dye issued only a terse e-mail statement:
“Vendors are working to support internal departments on communications planning, including preparation for NTSB public hearings,” she wrote. “The cost associated will be determined by the level of engagement in the weeks ahead, and is being funded by our insurance carrier.”
However, even if the cost is paid by Metro’s insurance carrier, the decision to retain outside help is likely to raise questions — especially among those who think Metro is more concerned with its image than with safety and its customers.
In a memo sent to senior staff Jan. 30, interim General Manager Jack Requa said the firms, which have expertise in crisis communications, will assist Metro “with the development of a reputation management communications plan.”
Boston-based O’Neill Associates was founded by Thomas P. O’Neill III, the son of former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D). Peter Goelz, who spent seven years as managing director of the NTSB, is a senior vice president at the firm. He is a frequent presence on cable news shows to talk about airline crashes and NTSB investigations. As managing director at the NTSB from 1995 to 2001, he was responsible for day-to-day operations of the agency charged with investigating transportation-related accidents, according to his profile on the company’s Web site.
Two people with knowledge of the decision, but who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said Goelz’s experience is considered key in helping Metro anticipate how the investigation into the Jan. 12 incident will play out.
The second firm, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, includes executive Kathie Boettrich, who Requa noted is “currently working with Ford Motor Company on their CEO transition.” The firm currently works with Metro on its media monitoring, Requa noted in the memo to senior staff.
Rebecca Ballard, a spokesman for Hill + Knowlton declined to comment on the work the firm is doing for Metro. In an e-mail, she wrote: “It’s our general policy that we don’t discuss the work we do, so there’s nothing for us to contribute to your reporting.”
O’Neill and Associates did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
Metro had been riding a wave of positive publicity following the successful launch of the first phase of the Silver Line rail project, which includes four stations in Tysons Corner and one in Reston. When General Manager Richard Sarles announced his retirement in September, he was praised for rebuilding a system that was struggling to recover from the 2009 Red Line crash in which nine people, including a train operator, were killed. Federal investigators cited Metro’s lax safety culture in the crash.
But the deadly January incident has raised concerns about how much progress has been made since then. Carol I. Glover, 61, of Alexandria, died of smoke inhalation. Glover’s family has filed a $50 million lawsuit against Metro.
The NTSB investigation is ongoing, but Metro officials have faced a barrage of questions about everything from why radio communications failed in the tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station on the day of the incident to why smoke-clearing fans weren’t properly deployed. In February, the acting head of the NTSB said a preliminary investigation indicated that fans designed to clear smoke from the tunnels instead pulled smoke toward the stranded train. The revelation prompted the NTSB to issue an urgent recommendation for Metro and transit agencies nationwide to review their procedures related to fans and smoke.
NTSB officials have scheduled two days of public hearings on the L’Enfant incident for June 23 and 24.
The Metro board’s search for a new chief executive was derailed earlier this month when the three finalists withdrew their names after being told the confidentiality of the job search was violated when information that potentially could be used to identify them was leaked to the media.
The withdrawal revealed a major rift within Metro’s leadership after board members from the District and Maryland objected that the initial three finalists for the job weren’t the kind of executive needed to fix the organization’s problems.
There also are concerns about Metro’s financial health. The transit agency is grappling with a budget shortfall and has asked local jurisdictions that provide funding to the transit agency to increase the amount they contribute. A plan to raise fares and cut service to help close the budget gap was rejected by a Metro board committee last month.