Investigations

A new internal report documents “one of the worst periods” in the history of Louisville’s transit authority — the 14-month tenure of executive director Ferdinand Risco. 

Risco was fired in February after allegations of sexual misconduct. But according to this report released Tuesday, his pattern of sexually harassing employees was just one aspect of his inappropriate behavior. 

He also directed at least $228,000 to a woman he was having a sexual relationship with, spent more than $63,000 on travel in one year, was rarely in the office and created a power structure specifically intended to help him get away with all of this, the report claims. 

The report also documents several changes that have been made since Risco was replaced with an interim leadership team, including overhauling the agency’s code of conduct and creating an anonymous tip line. 

Pattern of grooming, sexual harassment

The agency’s interim leaders hired two outside investigators to specifically look at the claims of sexual harassment. What they found, according to this report, was much worse. 

Risco intentionally hired and promoted young, Black women who were, in most cases, single mothers or primary breadwinners for their families, the report found. They were inexperienced for the jobs they took on, but would “gradually be groomed for travel with Risco and then subjected to his sexual advances.” 

Risco would demand sexual intercourse in exchange for job promotions, and “used economic control as a form of manipulation to make his targets feel obligated to him.”

One woman told investigators that Risco repeatedly sent her aggressive, suggestive text messages. She attended a party at his apartment, and when she tried to leave he “slammed the door shut, pinned her against the wall and exposed his penis to her.” 

Another woman told investigators she traveled with Risco extensively for her job, and he made several suggestive remarks to her. 

She reported Risco to a compliance officer in April 2019, but was quickly terminated and no investigation ever took place. That same compliance officer was the one who eventually went to the board in January 2020 to report concerns about Risco. 

No other women came forward to report Risco during his tenure. 

“It is likely because of Risco’s pattern of behavior towards his victims that no one came forward,” the report said. “They were silent.” 

The report also looked at three women in leadership roles who, by virtue of their positions, could have known what Risco was doing. The report found evidence that two of three women didn’t properly report what they knew. 

But also, they both “fit the mold” and told investigators that they too were victims of Risco’s advances. 

“Offensive” overspending 

Risco also allocated a contract to a woman he was having a sexual relationship with, identified in the report only as “Contractor.” 

This woman was given a $228,000 contract for which she “provided almost nothing of value to TARC.” 

Risco overstated her qualifications to the board and did not disclose their relationship, which would have disqualified her from receiving the contract. She also traveled with Risco extensively, which generated several other concerning overspending incidents noted in the report. 

The contractor came forward at one point to say she was also a victim of Risco’s, describing a sexual relationship that was not consensual. She told investigators that she did not report him because she was afraid of him. 

She has stopped cooperating with the investigation, and other witnesses have shared details that cast her story in doubt. But as the report noted, it cannot be denied that Risco sent her lewd messages that would violate sexual harassment and procurement policies. 

“Whether she was the victim of sexual harassment or colluded with Risco to bilk TARC out of $228,000, or both, is a matter that is still in dispute,” the report said. “However, what was also clear is that she was receiving taxpayer dollars after admitting to having sex with the Executive Director under an ‘agreement’ that violated several TARC procurement rules. She was not providing value to TARC for the money paid.”

Risco was overspending on other fronts as well. In one year, he billed $63,000 in travel expenses, compared to an average of $13,000 a year by his predecessor. 

The investigators seemed particularly put off that the executive director of a public transportation entity would spend so much on rideshares and mileage for his own vehicle. 

“It is offensive that a public transit employee could stay in a $600 a night hotel, run up a $400 bar tab, and ride in a $30 Lyft LX to go a couple of miles for dozens of days,” the report said. “This is especially true when our ridership may spend $600 a month to house a family, $400 to feed them and buy a bus card for $30 to maintain employment.”

And all of this very expensive travel meant Risco was rarely in the office, often logging fewer than 10 days a month at TARC headquarters. 

How did this happen?

The report portrays Risco as a wily manipulator, who “gradually took advantage of TARC over time, testing structures and boundaries” by sidelining the board and ignoring experienced employees. 

Risco limited employee access to board members, cancelled the board meetings themselves and refused to provide advance documentation of things like expense reports, creating a “rubber stamp effect,” the report found. 

The report places very little blame on the board itself, attributing most of the ignorance of Risco’s actions to leadership turnover. At one point during Risco’s tenure, the board had three chairs in six months, and several vacancies.

The report also detailed how Risco came to be hired, initially for the job of assistant executive director. The report said TARC dug thoroughly into Risco’s background and found nothing of concern, though it did raise questions about whether the agency did a formal background check. 

Risco was investigated at his previous employer, the Metro Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, for allegedly creating a hostile work environment. 

In light of these findings, the board and the interim leadership team have taken several steps. 

They have replaced the 20-year-old employee handbook with a new code of conduct, created an anonymous tip line and established committees to build communication between employees and the board. 

They’ve also overhauled the office that handles sexual harassment, created an Office of General Counsel and immediately suspended all travel until a clearer reimbursement policy can be made. 

They’re suing Risco for $800,000 in restitution and have referred the case to the Kentucky state auditor for criminal investigation. 

There is also an ongoing investigation by the Louisville Metro Council’s government accountability committee. 

Eleanor Klibanoff is a reporter with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.