NJT executive director responds to harsh criticism of agency at hearing

Opposing narratives emerge from joint hearing on NJ Transit’s personnel practices.

There were two halves to Friday’s legislative hearing on New Jersey Transit. A first half, two lawyers and a recently fired executive essentially trashed the agency. At second half, the executive director dismissed the earlier testimony as self-interested, all wet, and sour grapes. The first witness was civil rights lawyer Nancy Erica Smith. She has represented several groups of African-American transit workers, including transit police, who sued for racial discrimination. The cases were settled for $5 million and $3.5 million.

“About 10 years ago, I became aware of the toxic, corrupt, sexist and racist atmosphere in NJ transit. It continues until this day,” said Smith.

Beside her was an employment lawyer with an active case of racial discrimination against NJ Transit. He said the agency is full of bad actors.

“The fact that they paid that entity, any entity would pay that amount of money means that they felt they were at substantial risk to have to pay even more, a lot more,” said Ravi Sattiraju.

“An important point, every one of these cases could have settled early on for much less,” said Smith.

Next up was Todd Barretta, who spent five months this year as NJT’s chief compliance officer until he was fired this past Monday. He described a deteriorating relationship with top management and an agency that is totally dysfunctional.

“Simply, it is a toxic environment that promotes a culture that was not accepting of any corrected course. Although my tenor was extremely short in terms of time, I witnessed more occurrences of agency-wide management fueled by ignorance, arrogance, hypocrisy, incompetence, patronized, and corruption than one can reasonably expect to experience throughout an entire career,” he said.

Asked if the rail line is safe, and with NJT executive director Steve Santoro looking on, Baretta said he’d prefer not to ride it.

“I would prefer not to put my son on the system,” he said.

Santoro then came to the witness table. He said the two lawyers’ testimony was over the top and that they had a vested interest in the lawsuits they filed. And then, in sarcastic terms, he paraphrased what he’d heard from the fired executive Barretta.

“The context of it is testimony we are wondering how we are operating at all in this complete dysfunction and the leadership of NJ Transit including myself as not fit or capable of dealing with situations and running the organization. Mr. Barretta has known me for a few months so how he can make that allegation, is interesting, certainly interesting,” said Santoro.

NJ Transit has 11,500 employees. There are going to be employment disputes in an agency that large. Friday produced two starkly different pictures of the culture at NJT.