CA: Hiring of New Rail Boss of CHSRA Debated

As the new CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Jeffrey Morales will be required to review the performance of the consulting companies working on the 520-mile high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles - including his former colleagues.

Morales, whose contract as CEO was approved June 8 and becomes official on Monday, was previously a senior vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the program manager for voter-approved Proposition 1A, which aims to create a high-speed railway traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

He led the California Department of Transportation from 2000 to 2004, the largest state transportation system in the U.S., and was executive director of the Chicago Transit Authority from 1997 to 2000.

Parsons Brinckerhoff oversees eight other regional consulting firms working on the project. The company has a contract with the authority until June 2013, totaling $199 million.

Under his contract, Morales will be earning $365,000 with the possibility of a $25,000 bonus at the end of his first year if he meets goals created by the board of directors, including hiring a risk manager for the project.

Morales will no longer be an employee of Parsons Brinckerhoff when he assumes the CEO position Monday.

Officials with the California High-Speed Rail Authority said they consulted with the state Attorney General's Office and the Fair Political Practices Commission and determined that there was no conflict of interest in Morales' hire because he has no financial interest in the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm and will be owed no monies from the company once he assumes the CEO position.

But the hire has concerned some critics of the project.

"It may be lawful, but it's awful," said Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation. "It clearly gives the impression to the public that inside contacts matter. It's hard to see how anyone could carry out reform when you have someone who has been representing the interests of the prime contractor, and having all the social ties with the prime contractor, suddenly being able in the position to cut a check to them."

Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, called the decision to hire Morales "predictable."

"There is money flying out the door. I don't understand it; I don't pretend to understand it. The performance so far has been pretty poor, and Parsons has been involved in it every step of the way," Harkey said.

Even longtime high-speed rail backer (and former authority board chairman) Quentin Kopp said he wouldn't risk hiring Morales.

"I wouldn't take a chance, as good as he may be, with somebody who's working for the project manager," Kopp told the San Jose Mercury News. "I would still be troubled. The appointment of Jeff will raise questions."

But the Mercury News also found support for Morales. The newspaper quoted former High-Speed Rail Authority board member Rod Diridon, who helped recruit Morales two years ago, as saying Morales is a good fit.

"He has a unique ability - without making a lot of noise, he never attracts attention to himself - (of) getting very difficult things done quickly," Diridon told the paper. "He's inexhaustible. He works all the time. By that example, people around him are drawn into that kind of enthusiasm."

Morales was chosen CEO in a unanimous decision by the board on May 29, nearly six months after the position had become vacant following the resignation of Roelof van Ark.

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