New Jersey Transit has filed a lawsuit against a former compliance officer who told lawmakers he was fired for raising safety and other concerns but who the agency says was actually fired for misusing a company car and failing at his job.
Todd Barretta told a joint legislative oversight committee last month that the nation's third-largest bus and rail agency was a dysfunctional "runaway train" and that he catalogued problems including inadequate staffing levels and failures to update outdated policies.
The lawsuit, filed by the agency in a state court on Thursday, alleges that Barretta "set out on a campaign to malign NJ Transit and its leadership" after he was fired last month from his $175,000-a-year job. The lawsuit comes after Republican Gov. Chris Christie last week labeled Barretta's Aug. 25 testimony "false and retaliatory" and an attempt to manufacture a scandal.
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Barretta wasn't immediately available for comment Thursday, and his attorney, William Russiello, didn't immediately return a phone call or an email seeking comment. Russiello wrote in a letter to the transit agency on Sept. 1 that Barretta testified truthfully at the hearing.
"None of his statements were false, misleading or otherwise inaccurate," the lawyer wrote. "If the personnel about whom Mr. Barretta testified are upset over his testimony concerning their actions, we suggest that they modify their behavior, rather than attempt to silence Mr. Barretta by intimidation or pursue retaliatory actions against him."
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that NJ Transit didn't violate the state's Conscientious Employee Protection Act, as well as unspecified damages from Barretta for breaching his duty of loyalty to the agency. It also seeks the return of any agency property he still has.
The lawsuit says that, based on records from a GPS device, fewer than 200 of the 2,000 miles he drove in a company car were for legitimate work purposes and that he falsified monthly mileage reports. It cites trips to pick up his child from school and shopping trips.
It disputes some of Barretta's testimony, including that he wasn't given a budget, that he was advised to mark communication "privileged" to hide it from public records obligations and that Executive Director Steve Santoro admonished him for putting certain recommendations in writing. The transit agency says he had a nearly $1.5 million budget and that Santoro was not in the office the day of that alleged conversation and included a copy of a plane ticket showing him traveling out of the country.
"The thrust of Mr. Barretta's testimony was that he was a model employee whom, for fabricated reasons, NJ TRANSIT suddenly terminated. The accusation is utter nonsense," Santoro wrote in a letter to the lawmakers leading the legislative inquiry into the agency obtained by The Associated Press.
Barretta also took aim at what he called a "patronage" system at the agency and said he 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."
Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon pointed to issues that Barretta raised being independently corroborated, including that federal regulators are investigating abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act at the agency.
"To just be dismissive of what he has to say in the form of a lawsuit to me is just a continuation of the systemic issues here," McKeon said. "Their concentration should be on running a better operation as opposed to trying to discredit one of the senior administrators."