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Helena Williams kept on MTA payroll after discrimination lawsuit threat

Former Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams

Former Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams speaks after the April 2014 Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Credit: Bryan Smith

Ousted Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams remains on the MTA payroll in exchange for not pursuing claims of age and gender discrimination and retaliation, a source familiar with the negotiation said Sunday.

Williams, 58, confirmed Sunday that her attorney brokered a deal for her to return to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as special adviser to chief financial officer Robert Foran, and to help her successor, LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski, adjust in his new role.

She will continue collecting her $243,000 annual salary through November, the source said. The MTA agreed to allow Williams to remain on the payroll through November, at which time she would reach the 30 years of service she needs to receive a full New York State pension, the source said. The amount of her pension has not been made public.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg declined to comment Sunday, other than to confirm Williams "is assisting in the transition." An MTA source confirmed that the agency is paying Williams.

Williams said she has helped Foran put together the MTA's newest financial plan.

"I'm ready, willing and able to provide transition services," Williams said, adding that she was offered an MTA office, but has worked from home. "I'm able to provide these services remotely."


'Getting up there in years'

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast fired Williams in April, in part, he said, because he believed Williams was "getting up there in years" and lacked the hands-on transit operating experience of Nowakowski, who is two years older than Williams. Prendergast said Sunday he was referring to the length of Williams' term as LIRR president, and not her age.

Williams, a labor lawyer by trade, worked for the MTA for two decades, including as a labor attorney, president of Long Island Bus for five years and LIRR president for seven years.

Sources have said Prendergast sought to replace Williams because of her objections to a plan by the MTA and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to bring Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station around the same time the LIRR would link to Grand Central Terminal as part of the East Side Access project. Williams was concerned that Metro-North gaining entry to Penn would force the LIRR to reduce service there.

Williams will continue working for the MTA through August, then be paid for accrued vacation time for three months.

Williams' 2007 employment contract requires the MTA to also pay her "an additional lump sum payment equal to one year's salary," according to her 2007 employment contract. That contract did not include a waiver of any legal claims against the MTA if she was terminated.

The MTA's decision to pay the salaries of two LIRR presidents at the same time comes as the agency remains locked in a heated contract impasse with eight railroad unions, which say they are ready to go on strike on July 20. Williams' presence on the payroll was first reported by the New York Daily News.

With the unions continuing to mount pressure on Albany to resolve the contract dispute or at least extend the strike deadline to September, Cuomo Sunday would not say whether he will intervene to prevent a strike, but said he, and New Yorkers, want a "fair resolution."

"It's easy to threaten a strike, and obviously a strike on Long Island would be very damaging to Long Islanders, but Long Islanders are the people who support the railroad, so that should be kept in mind also," Cuomo said at the Gay Pride Parade in Manhattan. "We want fairness, and we want reasonableness by all parties involved. And that's what we expect, and that's what we deserve."


Unions want 6-year contract

The unions want the MTA to accept the recommendations of two federal mediations that called for a six-year contract with 17 percent in raises. The MTA is pushing for a seven-year contract with 17 percent raises, but also concessions involving future employees' wages and benefits.

"They've got a workforce of 6,000 people and they choose to disrespect that, but yet when it comes to executives . . . they have no problem paying them what they need to silence them," said Anthony Simon, lead union negotiator. "They didn't want to endure a lawsuit from Helena Williams, so they paid her, but they'll take 300,000 commuters on the street."

MTA Board member Mitchell Pally, a close ally of Williams, said board members were never informed that Williams was being retained, including during discussion of personnel matters at closed-door board executive sessions. But, he said, the MTA would be wise to tap into Williams' experience running the nation's largest commuter railroad for seven years,

"I would hope that they would use her expertise and experience to help Pat understand more fully what Long Island is all about and how it works," Pally said. "If she's on the payroll, she should be used to the fullest extent possible."

With Emily Ngo

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