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Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Sparks fly at NJ Transit hearing

Sweeney accuses Corbett of lying

By Nikita Biryukov, February 21 2020 3:51 pm

The Senate Select Committee on NJ Transit’s fourth hearing was dominated by drama and an adversarial dynamic between NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett and some of the body’s members.

Senate President Steve Sweeney repeatedly reamed Corbett for coming alone, without six senior staff members whose appearance the committee requested, and more than once accused the agency head of lying to the committee.

The first such charge came when Corbett claimed the beleaguered transit network brought in MWW, an influential public relations group based in East Rutherford, to help organize NJ Transit’s communications with commuters.

Sweeney, who chairs the select committee, said the group acted outside of that scope,

“When you send people to promote how great the agency’s doing, it’s PR,” Sweeney said. “There’s no need to fake when I asked you earlier to answer honestly, we have proof.”

They claimed Senate staffers overheard MWW representatives arranging testimony from Newark Regional Business Partnership CEO Chip Hallock and Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey President Anthony Russo

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg more than once went after Stewart Mader, who joined the agency staff last year as the Customer Advocate and Chief Customer Experience Officer.

The New Jersey Globe has identified Mader as the employee who sent a tweet attacking a (Bergen) Record reporter who wrote a story that said NJ Transit CFO Bill Viqueira suggested hiring his brother-in-law as the agency’s $128,000-a-year labor relations counsel.

Mader, Viqueira and NJ Transit chief administrative officer Jeannie Kwon, who, according to three sources, directed Mader to send the tweet, were among the staff members set to appear during Friday’s hearing.

Weinberg said Mader’s involvement in the incident had made her lose confidence in his ability to serve in his position.

“In my humble opinion, Mr. Mader has disqualified himself to continue being the customer advocate for NJ Transit, because no one could have confidence in his ability to be a spokesperson for commuters when he is tweet-bashing reporters who might be reporting about accurate facts at NJ Transit,” Weinberg said.

It’s not clear whether she would like Mader to resign or otherwise separate from government service.

She said she’d like to see him put into a public relations position, and she said she expressed her dissatisfaction with Mader to the front office.

Sweeney wasn’t ready to call for Viqueira’s resignation over the hiring of a family member.

“I’m not going to call on anyone’s resignation,” the senate president said. “I think that there’s some things that are going on that really have to be cleaned up.”

Corbett said he was aware of Viqueira’s relationship with Brendan Egan, the CFO’s brother in law.

“Bill Viquiera, the CFO, mentioned — actually, first I heard it from somebody in the rail labor department who was familiar with him from years ago and said he was interested in coming over, that we had a real shortage in labor, labor relations,” he said.

Corbett said nothing in state policy prohibited the hire, adding that multi-generational hires were not uncommon in the transit field.

The saga may repeat itself in a matter of weeks. Sweeney repeatedly brought up Corbett’s decision to show up to the hearing alone, eventually earning a promise that the NJ Transit chief would show up with his staff in tow at a later date.

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