The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board's decision to hire John Curran, husband of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, and his law firm to represent its board members makes no sense.
The move raises many questions, and so far, none of them have satisfactory answers.
Let's start with the simplest question:
Why would the MTA board suddenly require a steady, on-contract outside counsel who can earn as much as $240,000 annually?
The MTA board has never had its own independent outside counsel before, even when there was much criticism by other members of then-MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota on numerous issues, including his potential conflicts over the redevelopment of Penn Station at a time when he also sat on the board of Madison Square Garden.
Is there a need for the MTA board to lawyer up? Is there a scandal about to pop? The answer we've gotten from the MTA is pretty nonspecific: Basically, there's a lot going on. With the MTA's effort to transform its administration underway, overtime investigations of the unions, and lots of change coming to the organization, it would be good for the board to have its own independent counsel, some say.
- What exactly will the outside counsel do?
Perhaps the job will include advising the board, or providing opinions other than those of the MTA's general counsel, Thomas Quigley. Or, perhaps it will entail representing the board or its members. No one seems sure, but there doesn't seem to be a specific circumstance or case that requires this contract. •
- How did John Curran get the job?
By all accounts, he came onto the MTA board's radar through Linda Lacewell, a new board member appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in whose administration she served as the superintendent of financial services. Did Cuomo know about Lacewell's plan to hire Curran, with whom she had previously worked? So far, neither the governor's office nor the MTA has provided an answer to this. The MTA board didn't have to discuss the contract because it fell below the $1 million monetary threshold that requires a vote,so it's still unclear as to who came up with the idea and how the decision to hire him was made.
- Why Curran and his firm, Walden Macht & Haran?
MTA executives tick off the adjectives: He's experienced, smart and talented. There's no reason to doubt Curran's expertise or that of his firm. But Curran's focus over the years has been in white-collar crime, and in corporate compliance and internal investigations. How does that mesh with the MTA board's needs?
- Why not any other experienced attorney in New York who isn't the spouse of a county executive?
There's been no good answer to this question, other than the Lacewell connection to Curran.
- What about the potential conflicts of interest — or at least the appearance of such conflicts the hiring causes for both Currans?
Sure, John Curran could recuse himself from any legal work related to Nassau County or Laura Curran's MTA board appointee, David Mack. But that would sidestep the larger issue. No one seemed to see a problem. And that in and of itself is a problem. The move reinforces the rap against the MTA as a bloated, opaque bureaucracy. The Democratic county executive who campaigned against Republican patronage and nepotism has undercut her case, regardless of her husband's ability to do the job.
The unanswered questions must be answered. And while John Curran himself didn't do anything wrong here, the MTA board must go in a different direction.
First the board needs to make a case at a public meeting why there is a need for an outside counsel. If the board goes forward with such a hire, it must choose someone without conflicts or a perception of conflicts.
The MTA and its board claim they want to change how they do business. And then they provide every reason why they can't be taken seriously. — The editorial board