The Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (METRO) has agreed to settle a defamation lawsuit by the agency’s former chief counsel.Pauline Higgins had accused Metro of firing her for trying to prevent the allegedly unlawful destruction of documents.
Under the settlement, Metro has agreed to pay Higgins up to $100,000 to cover her legal fees. The agency will pay no damages.
“We must be the change that we want to see in public governance and therefore public funds should not be candy for the crooked,” Higgins said. “I was a catalyst for change, protecting the public trust and public funds, and ensuring compliance with laws and I was smeared and I suffered for that,” she said.
Higgins, who was fired on Feb. 23, 2010, sued Metro and Frank Wilson, the agency’s former president and CEO. Now a partner in Lam, Lyn & Philip in Houston, Higgins says she settled because Metro agreed to apologize to her as part of the settlement.
“All I wanted from Metro officials after they went to the media to discredit me as a scapegoat for Metro’s problems was for them to apologize and repair the damage they did,” says Higgins, who served as Metro’s Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary with responsibility for the Legal Department, Administration, Small Business, Real Estate, and Procurement. “I am proud that I was able to achieve this apology without costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. I will receive no money from Metro beyond reimbursement of attorney’s fees and expenses that were necessary to get Metro to officially recognize that those statements were false.”
Higgins says her goal in filing the suit was to restore her reputation, not collect monetary damages from a taxpayer-funded agency.
“Metro has accepted responsibility for the false statements it made about me to the media and acknowledged that it was improper to fire me in a February press conference laced with these false claims,” says Higgins, who worked at two major law firms, a bank and a major accounting firm before joining Metro.
In a written statement, Metro CEO George Greanias says that he is grateful Higgins agreed to forgo personal monetary damages.
“The new Metro regrets and disapproves of the inaccurate statements made about Ms. Higgins in the media regarding her departure from Metro,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said in a statement. “We appreciate Ms. Higgins’ efforts to help us conclude this legacy issue so that we can concentrate on safe, reliable, convenient and affordable public transit and mobility services that our customers and taxpayers deserve.”
In her first amended petition in Higgins v. Wilson, et al., Higgins alleged Metro fired her because she had complained to Houston Mayor Annise Parker that the agency wasn’t complying with state laws governing document retention. She also alleged that Wilson had defamed her with statements he made at press conferences and by providing a newspaper editorial board with “questionable documents from an alleged ‘investigation’ into Higgins’ management practices.”
Higgins sued Wilson alleging defamation and Metro alleging it violated the Texas Whistleblower Act; the defendants denied the allegations. In an interview, Higgins says she was “totally blindsided” by her firing and her job search was harmed by untrue media reports about her.
An investigation by the Harris County District Attorney’s office into the shredding concluded last July that there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Former city controller Lloyd Kelley had alleged the destroyed documents were those he had requested of Metro under the Texas Public Information Act in February 2010.
Kelley also sued the agency in connection with the shredding. Metro settled that case last June, paying $40,000 to cover Kelley’s legal fees and no damages.
Garcia, Metro president and CEO George Grenias and a majority of the agency’s board joined Metro after Higgins’ firing and have sought to rebrand the agency as “the new Metro.”
Hardin said he appreciated the current Metro administration for its attitude in negotiating the settlement and called the agency’s statement “gracious.”
“I certainly join Metro in regretting it took the actions it did,” Higgins added. “But I do not regret standing up against those actions. No one is above the law, and I will bear any burden in order to defend public trust and accountability. They engaged in a media war against me, but I have weathered that storm. I am still here standing for accountability for public funds, public trust,ethicsand the rule of law. As long as I am alive, I will fight for respect for the public trust, transparent stewardship of public resources, and ethical brokerage of business.”
ReShonda Tate Billingsley