Bennett’s Cross-Exam of Metro Chief Likened to “A Few Good Men”

Code Red

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Copyright 2007

Not since Jack Nicholson, as Col. Nathan Jessep, took the stand in “A Few Good Men” has a witness self-destructed the way Larry Salci did this week in a Clayton courtroom.

Mr. Salci, the president of the Metro transit agency, admitted that he had never read the contracts that his agency is suing four construction management companies for violating. He also admitted he’d never bothered to read the periodic evaluations that his staff had done of the management companies’ work.

Further, according to the opening statement by a lawyer for the management companies, Mr. Salci said in a sworn pre-trial statement that “The only people I really care about that have an input with me are my 10 commissioners that hired me, and I care what Wall Street thinks about me, and I care what my headhunters care about in the case I have to go somewhere else. And other than that, I just don’t care.”

What about the people who ride Metro’s buses and trains? And what about the taxpayers who underwrite Metro’s operations? And the people who work for him?

Mr. Salci might as well have echoed Col. Jessep in the 1992 movie by telling defense attorney James Bennett, “You can’t handle the truth!” and admitting “You’re damned right I ordered the Code Red!”

Three years ago, Mr. Salci fired the construction management firms overseeing the Cross County MetroLink extension, charging that they were responsible for a 15-month delay in the construction schedule and $126 million in cost overruns. The firms, doing business as the Cross County Collaborative, counter-sued for $17 million they say Metro owes them.

After more than two years of pre-trial motions, depositions, the hiring of dozens of lawyers and reconfiguring a courtroom to accommodate them all, opening arguments in the lawsuits began this week. St. Louis County Court Presiding Judge Carolyn C. Whittington told the jury of 12 and eight alternates that the trial could last into November.

Mr. Salci consistently has maintained that the collaborative kept secret changes in the construction schedule and problems that arose during the project. The collaborative has said Metro was fully apprised of the difficulties encountered, some of which it says were caused by changes Metro ordered to appease residents along the route in University City and Clayton. At issue, among other things, is how diligent Metro officials, including Mr. Salci, were in monitoring the project.

Metro has far more riding on the outcome of the case than the $100 million judgement it is seeking. Mr. Salci has said the case will prove that Metro was not responsible for the delays and cost overruns, and thus merits increased tax support from the public.

Mr. Salci’s performance on the witness stand this week doesn’t help that argument.

Correction published Wednesday, September 5, 2007.

Metro President Larry Salci testified in court last week that he had read the agency’s contracts for design and oversight of the MetroLink extension to Shrewsbury but did not review them before firing the Cross County Collaborative from the project in 2004. A report in the Metro section Aug. 29 and in an editorial Aug. 30 misstated his testimony.

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