NJ Transit ex-CCO Files Whistleblower Case

The former chief compliance officer at New Jersey Transit filed a federal whistleblower complaint against the agency last week, the latest twist in a drama that has irritated New Jersey commuters for months.

The ex-compliance officer, Todd Barretta, filed his complaint with OSHA on Jan. 10, claiming whistleblower status under the Federal Rail Safety Act. He accuses New Jersey Transit of firing him last August after only five months on the job because he raised numerous allegations of safety lapses, inadequate policies, and a culture of secrecy. He’s seeking reinstatement of his job, damages, and attorney fees.

I obtained a copy of Barretta’s complaint — an eight-page letter to OSHA, plus 200 pages of supporting documentation — over the weekend. It makes for some painful, if captivating, reading.

The bulk of the complaint is the transcript of a hearing New Jersey lawmakers held last year, taking testimony from Barretta and his former boss, NJT executive director Steven Santoro. Barretta describes appalling compliance practices at the agency; Santoro returns fire with accusations that Barretta was an ill-fitting, novice employee whose allegations were unfounded.

If compliance professionals want to spend a few hours studying policy management and interpersonal relations gone wrong, Barretta’s complaint is the perfect read. For example, in his testimony to New Jersey lawmakers, Barretta said he found one NJT policy about drug and alcohol use among engineers hadn’t been reviewed in 13 years. Meanwhile, Federal Railroad Administration regulations had changed about the types of drugs tested, acceptable results, and testing methods used.

whistleblowerSo many NJT policies were ineffective, Barretta told lawmakers, that he urged the NJT to replace them all with model regulations from the feds. At least those model rules, he said, would be current.

(Ask yourself: how often do you review policies at your company? This is why we talk about policy and regulatory reviews, people.)

Barretta describes an organization with no sense of what it wanted its compliance function to do — and then forcefully pushed back when the compliance function did something the agency didn’t want. He was excluded from meetings and warned against working with certain people or departments. I’m sure that sounds familiar to some of you out there.

Now, the caveats. We don’t know how much of Barretta’s complaint is true, although he provides plenty of documentation. Managing public transit is a thankless job under the best of circumstances, with stingy budgets and complex regulation. Barretta did not have much experience working in public transit when he accepted the chief compliance officer job last March.

Still, if the choice is between believing that a state agency is inept, or that its compliance officer is a clod — well, I’ve covered enough state politics in my career to bet on the agency being inept. NJT’s safety record over the last few years, or the lack thereof, certainly suggests that Barretta has complaints worth investigating.

We close with a line from Santoro, the NJ Transit executive director. Immediately after Barretta testified to lawmakers, Santoro took his turn on the witness seat and said: “In the context of [Barretta’s] testimony, we’re wondering how we’re operating at all with this complete dysfunction.”

I suspect NJT riders contemplate that same point every day.

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