NJ Transit Withholds Data Subpoenaed for Lawmakers' Safety Probe

(Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Transit is suppressing internal documents subpoenaed by state legislators investigating how the once-model commuter system fell into a safety and financial crisis.

Eight years of reports by NJ Transit’s auditor general haven’t been provided. Neither have records about delayed installation of life-saving train technology. Though NJ Transit has handed over 28,000 pages of documents, the missing information may point to troubles deeper than what lawmakers have found so far at the nation’s biggest statewide mass-transit agency, vital to New Jersey’s economy as a link to New York City jobs.

Subpoena power proved explosive to legislators’ investigation of the George Washington Bridge scandal four years ago, tying the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to allies of Republican Governor Chris Christie and helping to derail his presidential run. In this case, NJ Transit is withholding some key information sought by a committee that has been reviewing management and safety since October 2016, after the agency’s first fatal train wreck in two decades.

“You’d think by this stage, public agencies would know that sooner or later, they’ll be found out,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck and a member of both the bridge and NJ Transit investigative panels. “Why play games with us?”

Commuter Chaos

One audit report, never publicly released but referenced in other documents, linked employee abuse of medical leave to commuter bus and rail disruptions. In another surprise to legislators, who approve NJ Transit’s budget, records detailed multimillion-dollar settlements in at least 30 discrimination lawsuits since 2012.

Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director, and Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman, didn’t respond to emailed questions about why the records were withheld. Snyder did provide a letter referencing the agency’s “seventh and final consolidated response” to subpoenas on Oct. 13.

NJ Transit officials initially told lawmakers that they would share whatever was asked of them, so long as the information didn’t compromise confidentiality, and they provided documents in batches. In July, though, nine months after hearings began, panel members said the railroad was stonewalling on verbal and written requests for the information needed most, and the panel issued the first of nine subpoenas.

Some of those demands were filled, some partly and some not at all. NJ Transit has never provided what are known as privilege logs explaining why some documents were withheld, according to the legislative committee.

NJ Transit under Christie has had a weak record on transparency. After Hurricane Sandy damaged more than 300 train cars and locomotives, North Jersey Media Group, publisher of the state’s second-largest newspaper, sued for access to a report that showed the railroad had been warned about storing equipment in flood-prone areas. 

Last year, without explanation, NJ Transit’s board skipped public meetings for two months. And hundreds of pages of budget details are no longer publicly distributed before the board votes.

At the same time, commuters have grown frustrated with increasing delays, breakdowns and crowding.

NJ Transit Withholds Data Subpoenaed for Lawmakers' Safety Probe

Governor-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat, campaigned on a pledge to rescue NJ Transit from what he’s called “Chris Christie’s mismanagement.”

Derek Roseman and Dan Bryan, spokesmen for Murphy, didn’t respond to questions about Murphy’s early plans for improvements. Among his transition-team members, though, is a former state transportation commissioner who oversaw NJ Transit when it was a national model, plus one of the agency’s founding executives.

Months after Christie took office in 2010, he canceled NJ Transit’s Hudson River rail tunnel project, criticizing its design and potential overruns. In later years, he cut the agency’s state subsidy by 90 percent, transferred $3.4 billion from capital needs to day-to-day operations and raised fares twice. Today, NJ Transit’s railroad has the most accidents and fines among its U.S. peers, federal data show.

Lawmakers are seeking information about some senior staff -- loyalists to Christie -- who were hired as safety openings went unfilled and rail accidents climbed. 

“We hear the same names mentioned -- of people who came from the governor’s office, or have an association with Christie -- trying to enforce the control of information and exact retribution on those who talk,” said Senator Bob Gordon, a Democrat from Fair Lawn who is co-leading the inquiry. “The mid-level people that I’ve spoken with, who have spent their careers in the organization and are committed to the mission, are very frustrated with what they see happening and understand we need this information to make intelligent decisions on where we go from here.”

Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, didn’t respond to an email or phone call for comment on the agency’s transparency.

Short Tenure

Gordon and his colleagues have particular interest in reports and memos by Todd Barretta, who was fired after less than a year as NJ Transit’s chief compliance officer. Appearing before the panel in August, Barretta said his warnings about staffing and safety issues were rebuffed, and he called the agency “a toxic environment that promotes a culture not accepting of any corrective course.”

Christie later told reporters that Barretta’s characterization was “false and retaliatory.” NJ Transit sued Barretta in September, claiming he was disgruntled and had been fired for unsatisfactory performance and misuse of a company vehicle.

Barretta, in an emailed statement, said his testimony was “truthful and accurate.” The committee has yet to receive most of what it subpoenaed about his tenure.

“Instead of concentrating on making the system safer and more reliable, they’ve committed precious resources to silencing me in an effort to prevent the public, as best they can, from learning the contents of those documents,” Barretta wrote. “Of course, they’re not going to just turn them over -- subpoena or not and certainly not without consequence.”

In September 2016, a train traveling twice the speed limit crashed at the Hoboken terminal, killing a woman on the platform and injuring more than 100 passengers. While the National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to the engineer’s sleep disorder, lawmakers pressed NJ Transit on its delayed installation of train-control equipment.

The emergency-override system, mandated by Congress, would have prevented deadly high-speed derailments of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia in 2015 and a Metro-North train in the Bronx in 2013, according to the safety board. NJ Transit has said it will meet its 2018 extended deadline to install the system.

Lawmakers have been waiting since September for requested communications about the technology between the Federal Railroad Administration and NJ Transit. Even as it awaits those and other documents, the panel is drafting reform recommendations for the incoming governor.

“You know what the overall report is going to say?” said Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange who is co-leading the investigation. “Tear the place down and start again.”

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