NJ Transit administrators abused car policy for personal use in 2017, audit finds

Andreas Milano

A Wawa run on a day off. A 132-mile daily commute between Newark and Toms River. A weekend trip to Lambertville. Out of 25 administrators who were assigned NJ Transit vehicles for business use in 2017, 22 misused them, primarily for commuting, when they could have taken a train or […]

A Wawa run on a day off. A 132-mile daily commute between Newark and Toms River. A weekend trip to Lambertville.

Out of 25 administrators who were assigned NJ Transit vehicles for business use in 2017, 22 misused them, primarily for commuting, when they could have taken a train or bus, according to a 2018 internal audit obtained by NJ Advance Media.

The March 2018 document by former auditor Warren Hersh determined that administrators abused the policy — which said vehicles were authorized for business only — by using them for commuting 84% of the time. Instead, they should have taken public transportation, the audit revealed.

A policy change was enacted the following year — which took into account the audit recommendations to prohibit personal use— however a subsequent audit has not been done according to an NJ Transit spokesperson

“They (internal audit) do monitor the recommendations made in (the) previous audit and confirm they are being implemented to,” said Jim Smith, a spokesman.

NJ Transit declined to answer questions about what sparked the audit in 2017.

“We can’t comment specifically on an internal, confidential document obtained through an unofficial source,” Smith said. “NJ Transit encourages everyone to use mass transit whenever possible.”

Among the top offenders named in the audit were former Executive Director Steve Santoro, former Chief of System Safety Tabon Gardner and former Assistant Executive Director of Human Resources Deborah Prato. The audit determined that 100% of the mileage on their company vehicles were due to commuting use. At the time, violators of the policy could lose their vehicle or face disciplinary action such as termination,but only one person, Todd Barretta, faced discipline as a result, according to testimony at a legislative hearing in 2017.

An audit spreadsheet said Santoro logged the most mileage, 15,708 “personal miles” between May and November 2017 on an NJ Transit vehicle. The audit said “102%” of that mileage was for use identified as a 132-mile daily commute from Toms River. The audit concluded, “it would be less expensive if he took the train from Bayhead.”

Former NJ Transit executive director Steve Santoro is seen touring Newark Light Rail repair shops in a file photo. Santoro was one of the Christie-era NJ Transit executives identified in an audit as using an agency vehicle mainly for personal commuting use.

The audit determined the agency’s controls over “non-revenue service vehicles (which aren’t used to transport the public) needs strengthening.” It recommended NJ Transit adopt a vehicle policy that is consistent with the State’s policy. “Prohibition of using company vehicles for personal business should be reemphasized to all employees,” the audit concluded.

NJ Transit officials said the policy was changed in 2019 to include the audit recommendations, which said the agency’s controls over “non-revenue service vehicles (which aren’t used to transport the public) needs strengthening.”

“An update to the personal use definition” was included in the new policy, NJ Transit spokesman Jim Smith said. Employees also were told that any commuting miles they put on an agency vehicle can be taxed under applicable IRS regulations, he said

No current employees who were assigned non-revenue vehicles have been required to return them, he said.

Current NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett has remained a regular commuter on the Morris & Essex line trains since his 2018 appointment.

But before his tenure began, vehicles were used by employees to conduct personal business, either on the way to work, during work hours, on the way home from work, or during non-business hours, the audit said. The degree of personal use varied between each employee.

Policy allows company vehicles to be used for lunch breaks and other breaks during the workday.

The 118 vehicles that were the subject of the 2017 audit “are currently assigned to positions that require immediate 24/7 response,” Smith said. There are 86 of those vehicles now, officials said. Other employees sign out vehicles from a pool as needed for work travel.

In the case of the administrators in the 2017 audit, it found four out of 25 employees audited were called out after work hours during the May to November 2017 period examined.

GPS data and monthly reports were used in the audit that looked at vehicle use between May 1 to Nov. 30, 2017.

Among the findings, were:

  • Former Deputy Executive Director Amy Herbold “consistently brought her car to a residence in Bay Head.” In one instance, “Amy used her car for an overnight stay in Lambertville. She also used that car for “minor personal business during (her) commute to and from work” at NJ Transit’s Newark headquarters.
  • Now Acting Director of Rail Operations James Sincaglia “twice drove his NJ Transit vehicle to a Wawa” when he wasn’t working. Another day that month, he drove that vehicle to a school in Toms River and made a quick stop, on a weekday he wasn’t working.
  • Former Rail Operations Director Bob Lavell used his NJ Transit vehicle for commuting 89% of the time, based on monthly mileage and GPS reports, the audit said.
  • A vehicle assigned to current Bus Operations director Mike Kilcoyne was used mostly for “commuting back and forth to work” it said.
  • Former Chief of System Safety Tabon Gardner drove his agency vehicle to a train station in Union and took the train from there. The audit ruled it was used for commuting 100% of the time.

The audit had no data for former Chief Compliance Officer Todd Barretta, who was fired in August 2017 for what officials called “significant misuse of his (NJ Transit) vehicle.” He testified to a legislative oversight committee in August 2017 and filed a federal whistleblower safety complaint against the agency in 2018.

Former  NJ Transit compliance officer testifies.

Former NJ Transit Chief Compliance Officer Todd Barretta testifies before a Joint Legislative Oversight Committee investigating the agency in August 2017. NJ Transit officials said he was fired for misusing an agency vehicle, A 2018 audit is silent about his vehicle use while saying other administrators used agency vehicles primarily for commuting.

A audit spreadsheet only says an audit was performed by the manager of fleet services on Barretta’s vehicle use and provided no details.

“This internal audit concludes exactly what I have said all along and clearly shows that any claim that I somehow misused my vehicle is nothing more than one of their shifting pretexts for my unlawful termination,” Barretta said.

Barreta said he’s tried to obtain audit documents over NJ Transit’s boiler-plate objections for nearly a year, through his attorney.

“When I finally won a court order in January, NJ Transit said that this audit did not exist,” he said. “That intentional misrepresentation cannot be explained away by the ignorance, arrogance, and gross incompetence that continues to plague the agency.”

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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].

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