NJ Transit Willfully Blind to Its Own Crisis, Fired Official Says

Todd Barretta, former chief compliance officer for NJ Transit. Christian Hetrick/Observer

In explosive testimony that cast a new cloud on Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, Todd Barretta, the recently ousted NJ Transit chief compliance officer, claimed Friday that he was fired after being told repeatedly to ignore the systematic safety and staffing issues he uncovered at the embattled rail operator.

Barretta, who was fired last week after six months on the job, gave extensive testimony to a joint legislative oversight committee of the Assembly and Senate, laying out in stark terms how he was rebuffed as he sought to ensure NJ Transit followed appropriate safety and staffing procedures.

The rail agency is a “runaway train” plagued by a “culture of secrecy” and fear-mongering, he said. Baretta said he would not want to ride the rail system because of its antiquated infrastructure.

“It is a toxic environment that promotes a culture not accepting of any corrective course,” he testified. “Although my tenure was extremely short in terms of time, I witnessed more occurrences of agency-wide mismanagement fueled by ignorance, arrogance, hypocrisy, incompetence, patronage, cover-up and corruption than one can reasonably expect to experience throughout an entire career.”

Barretta said agency leadership repeatedly told him to stand down as he outlined issues involving outdated policies, employee safety testing and potential misuse of Superstorm Sandy recovery money. He claimed officials told him to stop putting his analyses in writing.

Barretta said he observed instructors giving engineers the answers to continuing education tests. He said he was admonished when he chronicled this in a memo.

“The tests were done together as groups so the answers were given and then everyone filled in the bubble,” he said. “Outrageous is an understatement.”

In one instance, Barretta said, NJ Transit Executive Director Steven Santoro made him remove sections of a memo he wrote about the agency’s compliance with New Jersey’s family leave law for employees.

Barretta said he was demoted in July and was told NJ Transit would “bring in someone with more experience in public agency culture.” He was later suspended and then terminated on Aug. 21, he told the committee. Asked after his testimony if he thought he was fired because he was pointing out systematic issues at the agency, Barretta said, “I believe so.”

He said a “club of individuals” at the agency “terrorize other employees,” saying he faced retaliation and was not told details about an internal investigation into his suspension.

That NJ Transit has been deeply underfunded for years under Christie and before is no secret. The agency has diverted millions of dollars from capital funding projects to be able to keep covering the cost of its operations, and fares have increased several times in recent years. Christie has had difficulty recruiting a leader for NJ Transit with the right “experience in public agency culture.” William Crosbie, a former chief operating officer of Amtrak, accepted the top job only to pull out last year before his start date.

But Barretta’s testimony gave a close and disturbing look at the lengths NJ Transit’s top executives will go to sweep problems under the rug, and raised questions about whether those executives are adequately considering passenger safety and complying with the law.

Santoro looked on as Barretta gave his roughly 45-minute testimony. Afterward, he told the committee that Barretta was originally suspended for “significant misuse” of his NJ Transit vehicle, and questioned Barretta’s ability to assess the agency.

“Mr. Barretta has only been here for a few months,” Santoro said. “How he can make that observation is interesting.”

Lying under oath to a legislative committee is an offense under state law. But neither Barretta nor Santoro was sworn in before giving public testimony on Friday.

“From discrimination, to negligence to possible outright malfeasance, the allegations we heard today are disturbing, to say the least,” Assemblywoman Liz Muoio (D-Mercer) said after the hearing in a statement. “A system that was once considered a jewel amongst state transit operations has been described today as a ‘toxic environment,’ wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and endangering public safety. If the former compliance officer for NJ Transit doesn’t feel comfortable putting his family on our trains, why should the general public?”

NJ Transit Willfully Blind to Its Own Crisis, Fired Official Says