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O.C. toll road CEO put on leave after spending questioned

Public TransportationOrange County RegisterMetrolink

The chief executive officer for Orange County’s toll road agency has been put on leave after less than one year on the job, a spokeswoman for the agency confirmed Friday.

Neil Peterson had been under fire for spending thousands of dollars without public  scrutiny, using a provision that gave him and the agency's chairwoman authority to sign smaller contracts without the authorization of the Transportation Corridor Agencies' board of directors.

The agency oversees the county’s extensive toll road system, which includes the 73, 133, 241 and 261 toll roads.

Peterson was appointed to the position in 2013 after a nationwide search, according to the agency’s website.

Spokeswoman Lisa Telles declined to say why Peterson was put on leave, saying it was a personnel matter. The agency’s chief engineer, Mike Kraman, was appointed acting CEO, she said.

Peterson came under criticism in recent weeks after it was revealed that he and Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett were signing off on contracts without taking those contracts to the agency’s board.

On Feb. 13, the board rescinded the provision, which had been in place since 2008. The Orange County Register reported the spending earlier this month.

The agency has a separate provision that allows the CEO to sign lesser contracts, up to $25,000, without board approval. That practice is common among similar agencies.

The contracts and change orders approved by Peterson and Bartlett since last year were with three companies: Canyon Strategies, a strategic communications firm; Richard Katz Consulting; and Robert Naylor Advocacy, a lobbying firm, Telles said.

The amount they authorized totaled $188,800, though the total value of the companies contracts with the agency is $372,200, Telles said.

Peterson, who was the head of the now-defunct Los Angeles County Transportation Commission until the early 90s, was dogged by similar criticisms during his tenure with that agency.

The Times reported in 1992 that agency’s staff, led by Peterson, came under fire for routinely signing off on change orders without board approval, though agency policy allowed him to do so up to a certain amount.

The Times also reported in 1993 that Peterson, who oversaw the opening of Los Angeles’ first modern subway, Metrolink trains and the Blue Line, was criticized after disclosures that he and other agency officials spent nearly $3 million on things as catered lunches, dinners and a Palm Springs resort.

Peterson repaid personal charges that he billed on an agency credit card, according to the report.

Petersen declined to comment for this story.

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