An Eagan man has sued the West St. Paul nonprofit DARTS, claiming he was fired after he raised concerns about maintenance problems in buses that provided service to the elderly.
In a complaint filed recently in Dakota County District Court, Corbet Houle, 39, claims DARTS defamed him and violated Minnesota’s whistleblower law, which prohibits retaliation against employees who report wrongdoing. He’s seeking back pay, an unspecified amount of damages, attorney’s fees, and a jury trial.
The Metropolitan Council fired DARTS in September 2014, after an audit discovered the firm falsified records and inadequately maintained Metro Mobility and Transit Link buses, which provide transportation services in Dakota County.
When asked about the Houle lawsuit, DARTS spokesman Andy Poulos said, “Our lawyers feel strongly that he has no case here.”
The Met Council shifted service to other providers after terminating the five-year, $13.7 million contract with DARTS, which had been a contractor for the regional planning agency for more than a quarter century.
Houle began his job as general manager of DARTS in July 2013 — a position that called for him to oversee vehicle maintenance. His suit charges that repair requests were routinely denied or deferred by higher-ups in the organization.
Houle claims his repeated entreaties to former DARTS President Greg Konat and Subramanian “Kris” Krishnan, DARTS chief strategy and operations officer, were ignored. Houle then began attaching safety tags stating “Do Not Operate” on buses that were in “exceptionally bad shape.”
Still, some buses without air bags or with blown head gaskets were deployed, as well as several with inoperable wheelchair lifts and corroded emergency exit handles. Defective heaters were removed and not replaced, and mileage was falsified “to give the illusion that preventive maintenance was occurring in a timely manner,” the suit claims.
Houle said that he informed Met Council staff about the safety issues during the fateful August 2014 audit. In response, one Met Council official “appeared distraught, and then made several phone calls in an adjacent office.”
After that, Houle said he was barred from talking with Met Council representatives, but contacted them anyway. Houle was suspended, then fired 13 days later. DARTS officials said that Houle had lied to managers regarding a workers’ compensation injury claim and because of a scheduling problem.
In defending DARTS before the Met Council, Konat said the shoddy work could be traced to three staff people (including Houle) who had been removed from their posts.
In a lawsuit filed last November, Kevin Raun, the former director of transportation for DARTS, and operations manager Robert Loeffler, claimed that they were removed because they, too, raised safety concerns.
After that suit was filed, Krishnan’s business background came to light. He had been banned from working with public companies for five years and fined $60,000 by federal regulators for filing inaccurate quarterly and annual reports when he worked at Digi International Inc., a Minnetonka wireless firm.
Konat and Krishnan have since retired. DARTS hired board member and former Target Corp. executive Ann Bailey as president in June.
Poulos said the loss of the Met Council business hit DARTS hard, “but we’re rebuilding.” The organization now offers transportation to such groups as churches and senior centers, and provides caregiving and household services to the elderly.
Houle claims that he has found it difficult to find employment. He now works at a Minneapolis warehouse.