The closed-door meeting to accept the resignation of Ron Garrison, former CEO of the Memphis Area Transit Authority, was perfectly legal, the board's attorney Bruce Smith said last week.
Garrison was arrested last week in a human trafficking sting conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which netted more than 40 people, many of them white-collar workers like Garrison. The sting, called Someone Like Me, involved TBI agents posting ads for sex on backpage.com. In total, four women and 38 men were arrested.
Garrison tendered his resignation to the MATA board Thursday evening, before the details of the sting became public Friday morning.
- Justin Fox Burks
- Ron Garrison
MATA came under fire for conducting that meeting without announcing it to the public and holding it behind closed doors. MATA meetings must be held in public, according to the Tennessee Open Meetings Act (also known as the Sunshine Law). But Smith explained that the meeting was legal because it came in the midst of an ongoing sting operation conducted by the TBI.
"There was an ongoing criminal investigation that TBI had not made public," said Smith, adding that the TBI operation could have been jeopardized by leaving the meeting open to the press. Smith also said attorney-client privileges factored into the decision to close the doors, since MATA as an entity was inquiring what, if any, legal ramifications they might face due to Garrison's arrest.
Garrison, a 25-year veteran of the public transit industry, now faces a misdemeanor charge of patronizing a prostitute near a church or school, and though two juveniles were rescued during the sting, it was confirmed that Garrison's solicitation was of an adult.
As for MATA leaders, their next steps will be a nationwide search to find a replacement for Garrison, who was hired in 2014. In the interim, MATA's chief administrative officer, Gary Rosenfeld, will serve as the interim CEO until Garrison's replacement is found.
MATA's initial response to news of Garrison's arrest was to say that, "this in no way diminishes the contributions of Mr. Garrison at MATA during his tenure in the last few years." Their statement was updated later in the day to add that, "While Mr. Garrison's criminal charges will be resolved by the courts, MATA does not condone human trafficking or any other violation of the law."
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland's office largely shied away from the controversy, saying only that MATA was right in accepting Garrison's resignation, and signaled their approval of a forensic investigation. As of press time, they have not commented further on Garrison's arrest.
In response to the news of Garrison's arrest, Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd sent a letter to MATA officials to request a forensic audit of Garrison's computer to ensure he didn't use public funds for soliciting prostitution or any other illegal activity. Boyd said MATA is already investigating the matter.
"I'm just waiting for that audit to be completed, so that my colleagues and I can review it," said Boyd. "We're not accusing him of doing anything illegally with his credit card. We just want to take a look, make sure all of our bases are covered, and the Memphis taxpayers are protected."