One of Metro’s new board members has potential conflicts of interests because of his day job as a Washington transportation lawyer, raising concern among some that his appointment could fuel perceptions that special interests have undue influence at the transit agency, Metro officials said.
Board member David L. Strickland’s first conflict could arise because he is a partner at the Venable law firm, which is Metro’s top legal adviser on labor negotiations, the officials said.
Strickland, a federal appointee to the board, also risks a conflict, they said, because he represents a coalition of transportation companies that includes Uber and Lyft, which are both vying for Metro’s paratransit work.
Venable, in a one-sentence statement, said Strickland will recuse himself from any board vote or discussion of any matter at Metro in which the firm is directly involved. The firm and Strickland declined further comment.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who appointed Strickland to the board for his safety expertise, was aware of Strickland’s possible conflicts of interest but DOT ethics officials concluded that the recusal process would be adequate to address them, a spokeswoman for the secretary said.
Still, the case again calls attention to past worries about Metro board members’ outside business interests that create entanglements with the agency’s work.
It also revealed a new source of tension between Metro and the Transportation Department, which has been pushing the transit agency relentlessly to improve its safety performance and financial management. Some board members complained that Foxx should have found someone without Strickland’s ties.
And it created a new complication for major labor talks that began recently to renew multiyear union contracts for Metro workers.
Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents about 13,000 workers, called for Strickland’s immediate resignation. It cited a “clear conflict of interest” and what it called Venable’s “infamously known” record of anti-union tactics.
Foxx named Strickland to Metro’s 16-member board in April as part of a major shake-up aimed at forcing the agency to move faster on safety. Foxx, who controls four seats on the board, ousted three longtime members and replaced them with experienced transportation safety professionals.
Strickland is a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. His practice at Venable involves automotive safety and cybersecurity, and the spokeswoman for Foxx said Strickland is not directly involved with the firm’s work for Metro.
But some of Strickland’s colleagues at Venable are important players with the transit agency. The firm, in addition to serving as Metro’s principal counsel on labor talks, has worked for the transit agency in business transactions, telecommunications and litigation, according to a July 2015 contracting document.
Metro has paid Venable a total of $508,700 for its work since the start of 2014, an agency spokesman said.
In addition, Strickland is counsel and spokesman for a coalition of five companies formed in April to push the federal government to approve driverless cars. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets includes Uber and Lyft, both of which are interested in getting Metro contracts to provide paratransit service for the disabled and elderly.
Some advocates for people with disabilities have opposed the move, expressing concern about Uber’s lack of accessible vehicles and the level of training its drivers receive in dealing with passengers with special needs. Other concerns have been raised about the company, mostly centered on safety and the vetting of its drivers.
Because of Strickland’s potential conflicts, a Metro board member said he was unhappy about “the perception, as it relates to the public and others,” that board members could obtain “monetary gains as a result of their association” with the agency.
The board member noted that a previous federal appointee to the panel, Mortimer L. Downey, had to recuse himself from some actions because he had a contract to advise a major Metro contractor, Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Strickland’s appointment is “just another example . . . that the feds don’t do their background work properly,” said the board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly antagonizing Foxx or Strickland.
Downey’s alleged conflict of interest resulted in an ethics investigation in which he was cleared. But to eliminate any perception of wrongdoing, Downey gave up his work for Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Asked about Strickland’s case, Downey, a former board chairman, said it was natural for people appointed to the panel to have potential conflicts of interest. He said the recusal process in the board’s code of ethics was the appropriate remedy.
“You have people on the board who have other jobs and other interests, and sometimes they overlap,” Downey said. “If they were totally uninvolved with matters having to do with Metro, I’m wondering what good they’d be on the board.”
In an earlier case, former Metro board member Tom Downs drew criticism from the union and others for serving on an advisory board of a company that won a Metro contract for paratransit service.
Downs said he made a statement at a public board meeting recusing himself from any involvement in the decision and physically left Metro headquarters when discussions of the contract arose. He recommended that Strickland take similar action.
The transit workers union warned that Strickland could prejudice the rest of the board regarding the current labor talks even if he recused himself.
“Strickland’s role is especially troubling because Local 689 is in contract negotiations and he is in close communication with key players that are a part of our negotiations,” said the local’s president, Jackie L. Jeter. “Recusal from votes is not enough when you play a key role in influencing other people on the board who do have a vote.”
She added: “Venable is well known as an anti-union law firm with a history of going around the country instructing companies on tactics to weaken and break unions. Strickland’s association as a partner with Venable is too strong to be separated from his board duties.”
A Metro spokesman said that board members recuse themselves on a case-by-case basis for individual board actions and that“such an occasion has not yet arisen for Mr. Strickland.”
Foxx’s spokeswoman said that the department officials “looked closely at Mr. Strickland’s background prior to the nomination, vetting him for potential conflicts that may arise.”
She said his work at Venable “does not in any way involve legal representation to [Metro] on labor matters.” The department also found that his work for the coalition involving Uber and Lyft “is the development of policies for self-driving vehicles; he is not an advocate for any particular Coalition members’ business interests.”
As a result, the spokeswoman said, DOT concluded “that the recusal practices in the Code of Ethics for WMATA’S Board of Directors would effectively address any possible conflict of interest. ”
Strickland’s potential conflicts were also discussed at length within Venable before the appointment was made, according to a Metro official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The official, who was familiar with Strickland’s thinking, said Strickland planned to establish “a very clear firewall” between Metro board matters and issues where Venable is directly involved.
Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.