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Ex-Seaway administrator: “I was fired”

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By JAEGUN LEE

CANTON - In an unprecedented move, Collister W. “Terry” Johnson Jr., administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., was fired Tuesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood himself, in person.

“I was fired,” Mr. Johnson said Thursday, recalling the confrontation in Mr. LaHood’s office in Washington. “He asked me to resign and I said, ‘No, I’m not resigning. If you want to get rid of me, you’re going to have to fire me.’”

The U.S. Department of Transportation had confirmed his replacement Wednesday but refused to discuss the circumstances surrounding his departure, saying only that it was against the department’s policy to discuss personnel matters.

Mr. Johnson said he was handed a letter of termination on the spot in Mr. LaHood’s office and was stripped of his hall pass, work cellphone and keys on the way out. Mr. Johnson shared the letter with the Times.

The one-sentence letter – dated May 8 and signed by Mr. LaHood – simply states that his employment is terminated immediately. No reason was given.

Mr. Johnson was appointed in October 2006 by George W. Bush — his college roommate at Yale University — to a seven-year term and was the last remaining appointee of President Bush at the DOT.

“It’s election year, you can do the math,” Mr. Johnson said. “From a legal standpoint, it is legal.”

However, his predecessors all were allowed to complete a full term, he said, so his firing by the Obama administration makes him the first Seaway administrator to be kicked out in such a blatantly partisan manner.

The top Seaway position carries a seven-year term designed specifically to keep the agency out of the typical cycle of housecleaning when the White House changes hands.

“The position has never been politicized before,” he said. “I think it’s a shame.”

But for the same reason, he said, it would be almost impossible for President Obama to appoint a new Seaway administrator this year as the hire requires Senate confirmation.

Mr. Johnson also said he had been facing “petty harassment,” such as being locked out of his office, since he was first asked to step down last year.

Mr. Johnson said that he lost his job fairly suddenly and that he is not sure what his next move is going to be.

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