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Metro gag order at odds with law

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's policy of forbidding employees from speaking to the media is at odds with a law designed to reduce impropriety at transit agencies by protecting insiders who bring concerns to light, an expert said.

The National Transit System Security Act of 2007, authored by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, and signed into law by President George W. Bush, specifically gives transit agency staffers the ability to report a wide array of concerns to authorities and the media without reprisal, said Richard Renner, a lawyer for the National Whistleblowers Center.

But Metro "has a policy in place that does not allow employees to speak to the media about safety, fraud, mismanagement or bad management," Anthony Garland, the chief safety officer of Metro's largest union, said in 2010, according to the union. "An employee's federally protected right to speak to the media or any entity investigating safety, an accident, fraud, etc., must be respected."

While Metro's general manager, Richard Sarles, has said that building a "safety culture" within the ranks of the agency's 10,000 employees is a top priority, an employee survey late last year that found that many workers who witnessed safety violations did not report them because of the fear of reprisal or because they felt management would do nothing about it.

Metro declined to provide information related to the apparent conflict.

The ability of those most familiar with Metro's operations to speak freely is especially critical because the agency shirks federal Freedom of Information Act rules that apply to public agencies, making it difficult for outsiders to assess the system.

While government entities must abide by strict transparency laws, requests for Metro records fall under a different standard and responses are slow and incomplete - or do not come at all.

Lawyers said that's an example of the agency evading regulations by positioning itself as public and private.

When the agency is sued, it typically invokes "sovereign immunity," the legal protection that makes governments immune from lawsuits. A Maryland appeals court decision knocking down a slip-and-fall judgment against Metro in December bolstered Metro's claim to that protection.

The absence of the threat of lawsuits as a consequence of sloppy work removes incentives for Metro to keep its house in order, an employee in a safety-related position in Metro headquarters said.

"Ask Congress to waive WMATA's sovereign immunity protection and things will change quickly," he said.

The first major award under a law related to the 2007 transit legislation came only last month, when a federal jury awarded $1 million to a railroad worker who was fired after reporting that he was injured by failing equipment in New York City.

Mr. Renner said while transit managers are only now beginning to adjust to the new law, a culture of accountability among the rank and file can take even longer to foster.

"It's gonna take some courageous employee to bring about change," he said. "But there are lives at stake."

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