TRENTON, N.J. – A recently fired New Jersey Transit compliance officer told lawmakers on Friday that he was terminated for raising safety and other concerns and that the agency is a "runaway train."
Todd Barretta told a joint Assembly and Senate oversight committee that he catalogued the agency's inadequate staffing levels, failures to update outdated policies and testing practices that included giving workers answers to tests.
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"NJ Transit in and of itself is one giant, runaway train," Barretta said.
Barretta detailed his experiences at one of the country's largest transit agencies as it deals with service changes because of track work at New York's Penn Station this summer and after recent derailments and other problems, including a fatal rail accident that killed a woman last year.
His testimony grabbed lawmakers' attention. Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon said it was "huge," and Democratic state Sen. Bob Gordon called it "a big deal," adding that he had believed the agency's biggest issue was underfunding but now believes there are bigger problems at play.
NJ Transit executive director Steve Santoro, who also testified before the committee, did not offer a broad response to Barretta's comments but said that based on his testimony "I wonder how we're operating at all."
Later, NJ Transit said that Barretta's characterization of the agency was "uninformed, grossly and completely inaccurate."
"Nothing Mr. Barretta told the Committees today adds any meaningful facts to the voluminous body of information NJ TRANSIT has already provided the Committees," the agency said in a statement.
Barretta said he catalogued a number of issues that he sought to update but was rebuffed by Santoro and was told "we don't need a gotcha guy" and not to document his findings because they could be subject to the state's open records laws.
He said the agency had dozen-year-old policies related to drug and alcohol testing of workers and administered certain safety tests in a planned, rather than random, manner while giving answers to test-takers.
Santoro, asked after the hearing whether he ordered Barretta not to document his findings and whether he commented about not wanting a "gotcha guy," said, "No." He declined to answer further questions.
Barretta, who was hired this year and was fired in August, also took aim at what he called a "patronage" system at the agency that thrived on "political connections."
"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, covering up and corruption than one could reasonably expect to experience throughout an entire career," he said.
Lawmakers called for sweeping changes at the agency and said the next governor should conduct a nationwide search for new leadership. It's Republican Gov. Chris Christie's final year in office.
Barretta told lawmakers he was fired specifically for failing to return an agency computer but has a receipt showing he dropped it off. Santoro told the Democrat-led panel that Barretta misused a company car.
NJ Transit said Barretta "brazenly" violated the agency's vehicle policy but said it wouldn't comment on the "reason for his ultimate termination" because of pending litigation.
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