Fired NJ Transit official: Agency ‘is one giant runaway train’
Lawmakers say they’re preparing legislation aimed at making changes at New Jersey Transit, the subject of withering criticism from employment attorneys and its own former chief compliance office at a Friday hearing.
For months, the Senate and Assembly have conducted hearings looking at NJ Transit’s operations, going so far as to subpoena records when legislators felt angered by the responses received to less formal records requests.
The testimony Friday was startling, though dismissed by NJT executive director Steven Santoro as coming from lawyers with a stake in lawsuits and an employee fired from his job this month.
The dismissed employee, Todd Barretta, who had started at NJT in March, said he had been instructed by Santoro not to be a “gotcha guy” or “put anything in writing” about problems he identified.
“Although my tenure was extremely short in terms of time,” Barretta said, “I witnessed more occurrences of agency-wide mismanagement fueled by ignorance, arrogance, hypocrisy, incompetence, patronage, cover-up and corruption that one can reasonably expect to experience throughout an entire career.”
Barrretta said “New Jersey Transit in and of itself is one giant runaway train” and that Santoro is unqualified to lead it.
“I want the public to know that New Jersey Transit is an agency that’s in peril and in great need of assistance and needs an entire new direction for its management,” Barretta said.
Santoro dismissed the criticism in testimony to lawmakers. He said Barretta had been suspended last month for “significant misuse” of his agency-assigned vehicle and ultimately terminated this month. His termination letter said he lost his job because he didn’t turn in an agency laptop as requested – though Barretta has a records receipt showing it had been turned in.
“The context of his testimony, we were wondering how we’re operating at all with this complete dysfunction and the leadership of New Jersey Transit, including myself, is not fit or capable of dealing with situations and running the organization,” Santoro said.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said the reason for Barretta’s suspension sounds like an excuse to terminate an employee who, according to Barretta, was told he was leaving because he “needed to bring someone in with more experience in the public agency culture.” He suggested GPS tracking would show other agency officials also do the same thing.
“Is that the best you got?” McKeon said.
At one point in the hearing, Barretta paused for nearly 12 seconds when asked by Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, if people should feel safe riding NJT. He didn’t say yes.
“The systems running New Jersey Transit are very antiquated and very out-of-date. While it’s nice to think that they’re failsafe, I also know that there’s nobody on watch as backup. I would prefer not to ride the system. I would prefer not to put my son on the system,” Barretta said.
Barretta said the problems at the agency include safety officers being given the answers to tests and patronage appointees with connections to the Christie administration.
“And they use that influence frankly to terrorize every other employees – fearmongering of their job security,” Barretta said.
Civil-rights lawyer Nancy Erika Smith says she’s never seen an agency with an atmosphere so toxic it doesn’t try to learn from a series of multimillion dollar legal settlements – more than $11.5 million from three cases highlighted at the hearing.
“About 10 years ago, I became aware of the toxic, corrupt, sexist and racist atmosphere at New Jersey Transit. It continues to this day,” Smith said.
“If HR and EEO won’t help victims, and they don’t at New Jersey Transit, and employees who complain are openly retaliated against, who in their right mind will complain?” she said.
Employment attorney Ravi Sattiraju says unless reforms are made, verdicts will get larger.
“The key issue here is a lack of consequence for people who cause these litigations to happen,” Sattiraju said. “Punitive damage verdicts are only going to get higher because juries will have the impression that New Jersey Transit does not care about discrimination in its workplace.”
NJT officials told lawmakers one person was fired in connection with the settled discrimination lawsuits and that others have been punished.
But Santoro largely swatted aside what he called “the over-the-top allegations made by Ms. Smith and Mr. Sattiraju, both of whom are vested in the employment cases against New Jersey Transit.”
He did say the number of discrimination lawsuits against NJ Transit have declined from 10 in 2012 to four in 2016. He said four have been filed against the agency so far this year.
“New Jersey Transit has a zero-tolerance policy on discrimination. We have taken and will continue to take steps to discourage unlawful discrimination and ensure a diverse and tolerant workplace,” Santoro said.
Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Bergen, said he intends to introduce legislation, hopefully in conjunction with other lawmakers on the committees holding the joint hearings, “that will provide the reforms that we need – the transparency, the accountability, the whistleblower protections, the structural changes that may be necessary to prevent these problems from arising.”
“We haven’t held all these hearings just for the purpose of embarrassing the administration,” Gordon said. “The objective of these hearings is to try to find the root problems that give rise to these conditions."
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