Metro operates the nation’s second-busiest subway. (Sammy Dallal/For The Washington Post)

The three finalists for the job of Metro general manager abruptly withdrew from consideration recently out of concern that their names would become public before the selection was made, leaving the transit agency back at square one in its search for a chief executive, a process that already has cost more than $90,000, two Metro officials said.

In what one official called “a huge embarrassment” for the beleaguered agency, the candidates — all from outside the Washington area — withdrew after a television reporter learned potentially identifying details about them, despite Metro’s efforts to keep such information confidential during the selection process.

After awarding a $92,000 contract to an executive search firm, which assembled a list of qualified and interested candidates, and after interviewing the three finalists individually during a closed-door, eight-hour meeting Feb. 13, Metro’s board of directors will be forced to “start from scratch” in seeking a replacement for former general manager Richard Sarles, one official familiar with the situation said Friday.

Since September, when the now-departed Sarles announced his impending retirement, board members have been exceptionally tight-lipped about a possible successor. Even senior executives in the agency have been kept in the dark about the search.

Because Metro operates the nation’s second-busiest subway, serious outside applicants for the general manager’s job probably would be prominent transit officials in other parts of the country, members said when the search began in the fall. If it became public that such an official applied for the Metro job and was turned down, that official’s present position could be greatly undermined, members pointed out.

Mortimer Downey, board chairman, has been leading Metro’s search for a general manager. (Molly Riley/AP)

“People’s careers are at stake here,” one board member said in rebuffing a Washington Post reporter’s inquiries about the search in recent weeks.

Reporter Adam Tuss, who covers transportation for WRC-TV (Channel 4), said in an interview Friday that he recently learned where the three finalists work but not their names. Tuss said that as he continued digging for information — “talking to the people that I talk to from day to day in Metro” — he told people that he knew where the finalists work, and he mentioned the locations.

“I didn’t divulge any names,” he said, because he doesn’t know their names. “I just said I knew there was a candidate from here, one from here and one from here.”

Two Metro officials familiar with what occurred said Mortimer Downey, the board chairman, who is heading the search, became aware of Tuss’s inquiries. The officials said Downey notified the finalists that a reporter had discovered potentially identifying details about them and that their names could become public.

At a closed-door meeting Thursday, the officials said, Downey informed his fellow members that the finalists had withdrawn.

“It’s a big black eye for the agency,” said one official, who, like the other, asked not to be identified because the search process is confidential. In addition to the expense involved in “regrouping and restarting the whole thing,” the official said, the fact that Metro was unable to keep potentially identifying information from reaching a reporter might cause future prospective candidates to think twice about applying.

Downey did not return a phone message Friday seeking a comment on the search.

“The Board’s search for a new General Manager and Chief Executive Officer is ongoing, as we want to ensure that we identify a candidate with the combination of leadership, transportation, financial and management skills,” Downey said in a statement Thursday.

Sarles, a former chief executive of New Jersey Transit, was hired as Metro’s general manager in January 2011 after holding the job for a year on what was to have been an interim basis. In 2013, the board increased his $350,000 salary to $366,000.

After he announced his intention to retire, the board in November hired McLean-based Lochlin Partners, an executive search firm, to cast a net for possible replacements. Metro records show that the company was awarded a $92,000 contract.

Board members were so concerned with keeping the three finalists’ identities secret that the Feb. 13 interviews were conducted “off site,” away from Metro headquarters, one of the officials said.

The official said board members “seemed to reach a consensus” on which of the three they thought was best for the job. Members probably would have voted on the matter soon if the finalists hadn’t withdrawn, the official said.