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updated: 12/18/2013 6:17 AM

Report: Complaints of racial, sexist comments at RTA 'credible'

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  • Joe Costello

      Joe Costello

  • Jordan Matyas

      Jordan Matyas

  • Daily Herald File PhotoIt's not clear what the RTA board of directors' role was after an explosive report was issued about employee dissatisfaction with agency leadership.

      Daily Herald File PhotoIt's not clear what the RTA board of directors' role was after an explosive report was issued about employee dissatisfaction with agency leadership.

 
 

An independent attorney's report details a "toxic" environment at the Regional Transportation Authority where off-color comments and salty language by two top administrators, along with fears of political interference, are hurting morale.

The 2012 report cites confidential testimony from employees -- including high-ranking executives -- about alleged racial slurs made by departing Executive Director Joe Costello and Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas, who is Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's son-in-law. It also refers to complaints of sexually offensive language by Costello.

Matyas and Costello have denied any improper behavior.

Renee Benjamin, an independent attorney hired to look into the allegations, concluded the allegations of low morale, a "culture of fear," and "use of racial slurs and sexually explicit language" were credible, based on employee interviews.

The report, obtained by the Daily Herald, raises questions about the agency's ability to lead at a time when it's been put under a microscope by a state task force. It was triggered by an anonymous letter to the RTA board of directors received June 6, 2012, that expressed "grave concerns with the executive management."

Benjamin's inquiry includes testimony that Matyas' promotion to chief of staff in mid-2012 and $30,000 raise was a "morale deflator." Employees assume that Matyas got the job because of his relationship to Speaker Madigan," one employee testified.

"The accusations made against me are false and antithetical to my character, my history and everything I believe," said Matyas, noting he was speaking for himself. "The findings of this report were not based on sound investigatory procedures and lacked the thoroughness needed for any fair-minded person to believe they are truly credible."

But other RTA officials said they took the complaint seriously and forwarded it to the state inspector general. The agency addressed the events leading to the complaint "professionally" and had Costello and Matyas attend "relevant management training specifically to address the report's recommendations," spokeswoman Susan Massel said.

Benjamin interviewed 13 current and former employees between June and August 2012.

Significant issues in her report included:

• A high-ranking executive testified Matyas used a derogatory racial term to describe an African-American administrator at a meeting. Benjamin noted that employees told her Matyas often referred to the ethnicity and sexual orientation of individuals when it had no bearing on the conversation at hand.

"I have never used such repulsive language and never would," Matyas said in a statement Tuesday.

• A high-ranking executive stated Costello used a racial expletive in referring to an African-American employee at a business function. The executive also testified that Costello joked about meeting her in his room when they were at a hotel on a business trip.

• An employee testified Costello touched her inappropriately at a social function and made jokes about having an affair and spanking on separate occasions.

• One high-ranking executive described the atmosphere at the RTA as "toxic," noting that top administrators "did not feel they have any influence over decision making."

• Another senior administrator described "a general distrust of Matyas among long-term employees because of his ties to (Michael) Madigan." The employee also stated that "staff historically saw Costello as a co-worker, not a leader."

• Several officials cited frequent cursing by Costello and Matyas. Matyas noted that the anonymous letter referred to Gestapo tactics at the RTA and said, "as the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were forced to flee Hungary -- I am deeply offended by invoking such comparisons."

Costello, 58, who announced his retirement last week, told Benjamin that "no one had complained to him about a hostile work environment or discrimination against women or minorities," the report stated. He also said using any racially offensive language would be "totally out of character for him."

"We are grateful for the input from employees who were interviewed as part of Ms. Benjamin's report, and we have spent the last year working to address the issues it raised," Massel said in an email.

"We are turning a page at the RTA," Massel noted, referring to the expected promotion of senior planner Leanne Redden to be the new executive director in 2014. She added that Redden is a "consummate transit professional who is well-liked and respected. We look forward to a new day at the RTA."

The original complaint was sent to RTA Chairman John S. Gates and the board of directors, who held a special compensation and Human Resources Committee meeting June 14, 2012.

Matyas was hired in March 2011, shortly after an amendment to a Senate bill surfaced in the General Assembly seeking to end Gates' term as chairman and replace him with an appointee by the governor.

The RTA has oversight of Metra, Pace and the CTA. A state task force on transit reform appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in the wake of a Metra scandal that involved patronage allegations this summer is studying all four agencies and should issue recommendations in 2014.

Matyas said, "During my time at the RTA and as chief-of-staff, I have worked with Chairman Gates to drive a change agenda at an agency that was in danger of becoming irrelevant. That required making personnel changes and has clearly led to disgruntlement by people who were not accustomed to being held accountable for producing results."

He said leaking the report was part of a "smear campaign by those who would rather that the RTA not be empowered to provide the real, effective oversight that is so desperately needed."

Benjamin recommended that given the consistency in reports about offensive comments of a sexual nature by Costello, his behavior should be addressed along with a "strong warning."

She did, however, conclude there was no evidence to support allegations of human resources process violations and discrimination against women or minorities in hiring.

Massel said the agency had followed Benjamin's recommendations including reviewing personnel policies and ensuring complaints involving improper conduct by senior staff be referred to the board's human resources committee.

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