Attorney: T Safety Chief Fired After Raising 'Critical' Issues

An MBTA Red Line train derailed just outside of JFK/UMass Station in June. (Courtesy Boston Fire Department)
An MBTA Red Line train derailed just outside of JFK/UMass Station in June. (Courtesy Boston Fire Department)

A day after allegations surfaced that the MBTA fired a senior employee because he raised safety concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker said he stood by the agency's decision but declined to discuss the matter in detail.

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that former MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ron Nickle filed a federal complaint alleging officials at the agency attempted to "undermine" his enforcement of safety regulations and sought to suppress findings to avoid public scrutiny.

Baker stood by the March firing.

"It's complicated to talk about personnel issues, but I will say this: I was briefed by the T on this decision, and based on that, I support the decision they made to terminate him," Baker told reporters at an unrelated event at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Baker declined to elaborate on reasons for the firing, saying that Nickle's allegations would likely "end up involving some sort of legal dispute." He said the MBTA is still safe, though, pointing to investments in federally mandated anti-collision technology and other infrastructure improvements.

The Globe reported that Nickle had filed a 97-page complaint with the Federal Transit Administration over his termination, claiming the decision was retaliation for highlighting hazards at the MBTA.

Asked about the allegations, a T spokeswoman said Nickle's account is "replete with mischaracterizations and falsehoods," but that officials would still review his complaint.

In the wake of the Globe's report, attorney Charles Goetsch, who is representing Nickle in a related Occupational Safety and Health Administration whistleblower complaint, wrote in a blog post that the former chief safety officer was fired just one day after raising concerns to federal authorities.

"On the morning of March 21st Ron Nickle met with the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and State DPU to report on the results of his safety audits and inspections. He highlighted critical safety issues and discussed corrective actions to be taken," Goetsch wrote. "The next morning the MBTA called him into a meeting and abruptly terminated him, giving no reason other than a desire 'to move in a different direction.' "

Nickle's allegations are the latest controversy for an agency already facing criticism for its management, train derailments, and frequent service delays and disruptions.

A June 11 derailment on the Red Line, the fifth this year and the 24th on an MBTA passenger train since the beginning of 2015, caused such significant damage that delays will persist at least through the summer. While investigators are looking closely at the 50-year-old train itself, they still have not announced a cause of the incident.

Meanwhile, Greater Boston commuters largely appear to be fed up with the state of public transit. Only 14 percent of respondents in a poll last month said they believe MBTA service has improved since widespread shutdowns in the winter of 2015 prompted reforms.

Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford, who has slammed Baker's handling of the T in the past, said Monday that reporting about Nickle's complaints "suggests that the Baker administration knew about serious safety concerns and engaged in a cover-up to hide these issues from public view."

"Instead of taking steps to actually correct the problems identified by one of the top MBTA officials, the Baker administration used intimidation tactics to silence the employee from speaking out," Bickford said in a press release. "Unfortunately, as we have seen with the situation involving the firing of the former head of the Environmental Police, silencing those who bring inconvenient information forward appears to be a page right out of the Baker/Polito Playbook."

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a labor attorney challenging U.S. Sen. Ed Markey in a Democratic primary, called for a congressional hearing to investigate the allegations "as well as the general management failures and safety practices at the MBTA."

Goetsch could not provide a copy of Nickle's complaint with the FTA, but according to the Globe's story, Nickle alleged that MBTA officials — including Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville — pressured him to tone down his safety reports to avoid drawing public criticism.

His complaint also alleges that MBTA officials wanted to prioritize on-time performance over safety on the commuter rail and was instructed to avoid putting internal communications in writing to avoid them becoming public, the Globe reported.

The MBTA said Nickle did not raise safety concerns in questions in his quarterly reports to the Fiscal and Management Control Board and that, if he noticed any problems, he should have notified the general manager.

MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said the T will consult federal overseers to investigate Nickle's allegations.

"As part of the MBTA’s unyielding commitment to safety, the Authority has made a number of changes, including hiring a new Chief Safety Officer, to ensure the T’s Safety Department remains focused on its mission with the highest level of professionalism, expertise, thoroughness, and accuracy that its customers and employees expect," she said in a statement.



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