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NJ Transit Accused of Ignoring Rules, Hiding Official's Concerns

  • Whistle-blower complaint says higher-ups ordered memos buried
  • Federal fixes given ‘lip service,’ ex-compliance chief claims

New Jersey Transit thwarted warnings about years-long safety issues and instructed its compliance chief to label his written concerns as confidential to prevent scrutiny by attorneys, media and the public, according to a whistle-blower complaint filed with the U.S. Labor Department.

When Todd Barretta started the job last March, he alleges in the complaint, he witnessed rail crews given the answers to operating-rules tests, and discovered federal recommendations that had been unaddressed for three years. When Barretta raised concerns, he was instructed to mark his communications as confidential “to circumvent New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and any other discovery rules,” according to a copy of the complaint obtained by Bloomberg News.

“I found a profoundly unsafe public agency culture where managers were allowed to give lip service to federal rail-safety rules and regulations,” according to the document, which was filed Jan. 10 with the Labor Department’s Region 2 whistle-blower office, based in Manhattan. His attempt to “change NJT’s unsafe culture” led him to be fired in August, Barretta says in the complaint.

NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder, in an email, said that while the agency typically doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation, officials “feel compelled” to do so in this case. NJ Transit “categorically denies the allegations in Mr. Barretta’s complaint,” she wrote.

Director Resignation

The agency provided a letter from federal officials, dated Dec. 21, which found NJ Transit to be in compliance with drug and alcohol policies, despite Barretta’s testimony that it was not. “This is just one example that speaks to the veracity of Mr. Barretta’s claims,” she wrote.

Barretta’s filing names the agency and Executive Director Steven Santoro, who submitted his resignation letter this month. In a lawsuit filed against Barretta in September, the agency claimed his misuse of an agency car and other policy violations led to his firing from his $175,000-a-year job. Barretta says those allegations are baseless.

The nation’s second-biggest commuter-rail provider, with the highest federal fines and most accidents among its peers, maintains that safety is its top priority.

‘National Disgrace’

Governor-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat who will succeed two-term Republican Chris Christie on Jan. 16, last month called NJ Transit “a national disgrace.” Documents obtained by Bloomberg show that his transition has asked for resignation letters from at least nine senior staffers with political connections to Christie, who slashed state aid to NJ Transit and twice raised fares while the railroad’s reliability crumbled and crowding increased.

Phil Murphy

Photographer: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Four days after Barretta was dismissed, he told a legislative panel examining NJ Transit finances and operations that the agency operated on a Christie-enforced culture of fear that drove out professionals with decades of institutional knowledge.

In his complaint, Barretta says he told bosses that a December 2018 deadline to install lifesaving train-control technology was likely to be missed. He also expressed concerns that the agency’s program to address federal rules on fatigue by engineers and conductors was insufficient. He was told by his bosses “to stop complaining and putting things in writing,” according to the complaint.

Whistle-Blower

In an emailed statement, Barretta’s attorney, Charles Goetsch, said the whistle-blower complaint “gives New Jersey Transit and the new administration the opportunity to get back on track by doing the right thing, which is to reinstate Todd as chief compliance officer so he can continue his efforts to bring NJT into compliance with crucial federal railroad safety regulations.”

Barretta, an attorney who also has a master’s in business administration, is seeking an unspecified monetary award and maximum punitive damages “to send an unmistakable message to NJT that its unsafe culture of retaliation against employees who report safety hazards or who seek to comply with Federal Railroad Administration safety rules must change once and for all,” according to the complaint.

In an email, Barretta said: “I want back the opportunity that was stolen from me -- the opportunity to deliver the safe, reliable and efficient public transportation system that the citizens of this state deserve.”

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