Greg Cook

Greg Cook

CONTRIBUTED BY LINKEDIN

No sooner had the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority’s board selected Greg Cook as the agency's new executive director Friday than questions arose about his past.

Cook, a veteran transit manager, was unanimously chosen to fill the new job of overseeing the private firm that runs the RTA’s daily operations. 

“The board members were impressed by the fact that he has experience working in both the private and the public sectors in the same sort of management agreement ... that we have here,” board Chairwoman Sharonda Williams said.

After The New Orleans Advocate asked later about reports that Cook used a public agency's credit card for a personal flight while serving as a transit executive in Ann Arbor, Michigan — and was separately terminated from another job in Georgia — the board said in a statement late Friday that it had discussed those allegations with Cook.

“Based on the information and references received, the board decided to proceed with making an offer to Mr. Cook, and is confident in his abilities to perform the duties of executive director,” the statement said.

But in an interview before that statement was released, Cook said he was never questioned about those instances specifically. 

Cook said reports about the Ann Arbor situation in the Ann Arbor News were inaccurate and a political hit job by a newly seated board that was out to get him after he refused to back it on a separate issue.  

Cook, most recently an interim mobility director with Atlanta’s transit system, emerged as a finalist for the local job after another contender, Cindy Terwilliger, withdrew her name from consideration.

The other finalist was Ken Zatarain, a service delivery director with the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon.

Cook is the RTA’s first executive director in more than two decades. The post was eliminated in a restructuring that left the agency with a single general manager and chief operating officer.

In 2008, the RTA hired the French transportation giant Veolia, now known as Transdev, to manage its operations, a move that put Veolia Vice President and RTA General Manager Justin Augustine III at the helm of the agency.

But under a 2015 contract between the RTA and Transdev, the executive director's job was revived, though the RTA board at the time took little action toward filling it. A change in board leadership relaunched the search process, with Williams, the new board chairwoman, working with the city to seek candidates for the job, which pays up to $185,000 a year.

A hiring committee vetted 36 contenders ahead of Friday’s meeting. That body was composed of Augustine; RTA board members Flozell Daniels, Earline Roth, Sharon Wegner and Williams; City Councilman Jared Brossett, who chairs the council’s Transportation Committee; Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant; and city Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert.

Cook said that committee asked him if he had any skeletons in his closet. “I said, ‘Well, I’ve never been arrested. And I’ve never done anything I was ashamed of.’ ” 

However, he said no one asked him specifically about his situation in Ann Arbor, or about another termination that he said came after Veolia, his employer at the time, wanted him to relocate for a job and he refused. 

In the former instance, Cook charged a $662 airline ticket for a job interview trip in 2006 to an Ann Arbor Transportation Authority credit card and didn’t pay it back until the board discovered it months later, that board’s chairman at the time told the Ann Arbor News.

That board already had been monitoring Cook’s expenses, which it saw as excessive, according to a separate Ann Arbor News report. 

The flight in question was for a trip that Cook added onto a business trip he took to California. According to the Ann Arbor paper, he was reimbursed by the agency in Washington state with which he interviewed. But the flight had been paid for by his Ann Arbor agency's credit card, and he did not reimburse that agency for months.

Cook told Ann Arbor News in 2007 that the late payment was a mistake, explaining that he thought he'd paid the agency back already. 

But he said Friday the board was merely using the plane ticket as a way to get rid of him. He said his relationship with the board had soured after its membership changed and the city wanted to tap into some extra money the authority had on hand. Cook wouldn’t budge, saying that siphoning money from that pool was against Michigan law.

“I wouldn’t have been looking for a job at that point if I didn’t see the writing on the wall,” Cook said. 

Despite the controversy, he said, the Ann Arbor board honored his contract’s severance clause and paid him $40,000 after he left. 

As for the latter instance, he said, Veolia paid him six months' severance after it released him from a job in Cobb County, Georgia. That proves he didn’t leave on bad terms, he said.

But in his conversations with the local RTA board members and hiring committee, "we never went through all that," he said.

Cook also has worked for Veolia in Las Vegas, served as general manager of the Salem Area Transit Authority in Oregon and was director of the Gainesville transit system in Florida, according to his résumé. A search of his name in newspaper coverage in those places didn't reveal any similar problems. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.