Fired NJ Transit Compliance Chief Says Safety Advice Quashed

(Bloomberg) -- A New Jersey Transit compliance officer on the job for less than six months was demoted, suspended and fired after he clashed with political hires loyal to Governor Chris Christie, he told state lawmakers.

Todd Barretta, testifying before a legislative committee with subpoena power to investigate the agency’s safety and finances, said he was instructed “not to put anything in writing” by Steve Santoro, NJ Transit’s executive director, after he flagged shortcomings in rail and bus operations and suggested fixes. As a workplace, the nation’s largest statewide mass-transportation provider is a “toxic environment,” he said, rife with arrogance, dysfunction and patronage. He also alleged corruption, though offered no examples.

“I want the public to know it’s in peril,” Barretta said in Trenton. “They need proper people in the proper positions.”

Santoro said Barretta’s testimony was coming from a disgruntled ex-employee who had worked there for less than six months, and asked how NJ Transit was operating at all if the dysfunction were so widespread.

“He was originally suspended for misuse of his vehicle,” Santoro said. “That’s all I’ll say about Mr. Barretta right now.”

Last year, NJ Transit logged the most accidents, including a fatal train wreck, among the nation’s 10 biggest U.S. commuter railroads. In recent months federal regulators have issued safety-violation notices after scrutinizing work-hour records, repair histories and incident reports.

Barretta, whose profile lists education including business and law degrees, described an agency tightly controlled by Christie’s administration while service and safety declined. Several individuals who had worked on Christie’s campaigns or in his office later were hired to NJ Transit senior staff even as they had little to no transportation experience, he said. His testimony echoed that during a federal trial this year of two former Christie allies convicted in the George Washington Bridge traffic scheme, when several witnesses said loyalists to the governor were planted elsewhere in state government to monitor for compliance with his management style.

“There’s definitely a club of individuals there,” said Barretta, who didn’t identify them. “That particular group of individuals, that club, what they share in common is that each and every one of them has their own unique tie to the current administration. They use that influence to terrorize every other employee.”

Those who clashed with the group, he said, were warned that their jobs may be eliminated.

Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange who is co-leading the legislative inquiry, called the agency’s management “a toxic stew of patronage and incompetence.”

“NJ Transit’s woes and its mistreatment of commuters seemingly stems from a disturbing management philosophy that places self-protection over public service and safety,” McKeon said in a statement. “The dysfunction is worrisome – and can directly be attributed to Governor Christie’s failed leadership.”

Brian Murray, a Christie spokesman, didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on Barretta’s accusations and McKeon’s criticism.

From March through early August, he said, recommendations for rules updates were quashed by Santoro, who told him the agency “didn’t need a ‘gotcha guy.”’ He was demoted, Barretta testified, suspended, then fired on Aug. 21 via a letter that stated he had failed to turn in an agency-owned laptop. Barretta had a receipt showing he had relinquished the equipment on Aug. 18.