The Senate president and other top lawmakers tore into the head of New Jersey Transit Friday afternoon over what they alleged were dishonest statements from him, and questionable public relations tactics on the part of the agency.
Kevin Corbett, who leads the beleaguered mass transit agency, was pressed over why he was the only one of seven senior NJ Transit staffers to appear at the hearing, and was accused by legislators at the committee of lying to them.
Corbett maintained in his opening remarks that “an organization the size and complexity of NJ Transit … cannot simply pivot on a dime.”
He touted a myriad of issues the agency has worked to address since becoming the chief executive officer in February 2018: Installation of positive train control and testing ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline, and an infusion of dozens of bus operators and locomotive engineers.
“Rather much like turning a battleship in the middle of the ocean is not an overnight endeavor,” he said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, who chairs the committee, dangled the prospect of using the Legislature’s subpoena power if all seven NJ Transit executives do not testify, arguing that they had much more cooperation with the agency under the helm of Steve Santoro.
Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, said that they would have to hold another hearing with transit leadership, and wrestled out Corbett’s assurance that those staff would be present. The senate leaders also accused Corbett of simply lying, and providing paltry answers to their questions.
“We expect you to be honest when you testify before this committee. We don’t put anybody under oath – I chose not to do that– but we want honest answers here,” Sweeney said.
A spokesperson for commuters?
Lawmakers at the Senate Select Committee on NJ Transit also contended Friday that the agency’s “customer advocate” Stewart Mader was unfit for the position due to a questionable hiring process, and because he allegedly posted a tweet on the NJ Transit account – that has since been deleted – bashing a journalist from The Bergen Record.
“No one could have confidence in his ability to be a spokesperson for commuters when he is tweet-bashing reporters,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-37th District, told Corbett.
In questioning Mader’s suitability for his role and essentially seeking his resignation, Weinberg asserted that he amounted to a public relations agent representing NJ Transit, rather than a commuter advocate, as spelled out in the December 2018 law creating the role.
Mader applied for the job more than a month before Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law, and used then-Murphy press secretary Dan Bryan as a reference, Weinberg read out. She said that the Legislature needs to clarify the role of the commuter advocate “because there seems to have been a little tone-deafness by the senior management at NJ Transit.”
Weinberg also argued that the agency’s board of directors should have final say over the hiring of senior management, rather than the current system of leaving such decisions up to the executive director.
Mader, Chief Financial Officer Bill Viqueira and Chief Administrative Officer Jeannie Kwon have fallen under fire from media reports as potential patronage hires.
Corbett told reporters Friday that he would not seek Mader’s resignation.
Weinberg and Sweeney also accused NJ Transit and public relations firm MWWPR of bringing along two individuals to a NJ Transit senate hearing in Hoboken on Nov. 13, 2019: Anthony Russo from the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, and Chip Hallock of the Newark Regional Business Partnership.
The two, who were allegedly prepped by MWW, praised the progress of NJ Transit at the hearing. And, the committee alleged, the firm also helped the agency on its interactions with commuters.
“They were instructed by MWW to come to the hearing, our staff overheard it and so did a reporter,” Weinberg said. “You have to stop spending money on public relations.”
Sweeney accused Corbett of lying about the reason for why the two individuals were at the November hearing. “You lied… Don’t dig any deeper, please,” he said.
“When you send people to promote how great the agency’s doing, it’s PR,” Sweeney told Corbett. “There’s no need to fake when I asked you earlier to answer honestly, we have proof.”
“We support a very robust infrastructure, that is good for all commuters and all businesses,” Russo said, denying that he had been helped or told to testify. “A lot of things need to be done” with NJ Transit, “but we support the positive things that should be happening.”
Hallock responded that he has spent years advocating for better public transit to the state government.
“I’ve been going to hearings for 20 years, all with the same purpose, and that is to make transportation infrastructure stronger, so that is not out of the ordinary,” he told NJBIZ.
MWWPR did not immediately comment.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. EST on Feb. 21, 2020 to include additional remarks from Kevin Corbett, Stephen Sweeney and Chip Hallock; it was updated 6:19 p.m. EST on Feb. 21, 2020 to include remarks from Anthony Russo.