Safety allegations raise control board issues

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is widely viewed as a government success story – five, unpaid gubernatorial appointees who have brought public scrutiny to the inner workings of the state’s troubled transit authority.

But the allegations made by former MBTA chief safety officer Ronald W. Nickle suggest the board is far from perfect. Nickle claims he was fired by the T in March for identifying safety hazards and pushing leaders to be more transparent about derailments, electrocutions, track problems, excessive overtime, and other incidents.

Gov. Charlie Baker said on Monday that he supported T management’s decision to fire Nickle, suggesting the T has a strong rebuttal to Nickle’s claims. But the incident should factor into the Legislature’s deliberations about how to replace the control board once its term expires next year. The big question: How can the T’s chief safety officer be fired and no one on the control board asks why?

Safety reports are delivered to the control board every three months. According to the T’s website, Nickle delivered a fairly innocuous safety presentation on January 14, and then Nancy Prominski, the chief environmental health and safety officer, took over for the briefings on April 29 and June 24. There was no mention of Nickle’s departure.

In the wake of the Red Line derailment on June 11, which elevated concerns about safety at the MBTA, Nickle appears to have reached out to the Boston Globe. The newspaper reported on his firing on Sunday and then followed up on Monday with a story on Baker’s support for the T that included a copy of an 88-page statement/complaint Nickle delivered to the Federal Transit Administration on May 1.

In the statement, Nickle details his concerns about safety practices at the MBTA, including poorly supervised construction work on the Green Line extension, shoddy workplace practices, a Green Line derailment earlier this year, and the runaway Red Line train out of Braintree station in 2015.

The runaway train went five miles without a driver before coming to a halt. Nickle said he investigated the incident and uncovered systemic problems, but was pressured to redact some parts of his report. Nickle quotes Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, warning him to tread cautiously. “Now Ron, things right now are very intense as you know. You want to be very, very, very careful, Ron, we can’t have the public learning about this and we don’t want to upset Brian,” an apparent reference to Brian Shortsleeve, who was the T’s chief administrator at the time and now serves on the control board.

After a number of problems surfaced with the Green Line extension construction work, Nickle conducted an unannounced safety audit and found “what I would classify as a complete breakdown in on-track safety protocols.”

He noted Algonquin Gas contacted him complaining about Green Line contractors working in close proximity to high-pressure gas lines without Algonquin approval or oversight.

A repairman at the T’s Wellington facility was electrocuted last December, so Nickle said he conducted an unannounced safety inspection there in February. He said he uncovered all sorts of safety issues, including repairmen who were working double shifts (16 hours straight). He responded by launching a safety shutdown.

“I am certain that my discussing the electrical safety electrocution incident with regulators is the reason for my dismissal, as [top MBTA officials] wanted to impair my ability to discuss safety concerns openly with regulators,” he said in his statement.

Nickle said he investigated a Green Line derailment on the Riverside Line on February 5, the day of the New England Patriots parade. Nickle said he was concerned that T officials were more focused on restoring service than dealing with the underlying safety problems, which he said turned out to be a case of defective track maintenance.

“I believe the DGM Gonneville and his investigators wanted to misrepresent or omit the specific findings out of fear that MBTA would come under criticism by regulator or the public for the failures of MBTA to properly grind the rail, and to identify the track defect condition, which would require a Corrective Action Plan,” he said in his statement.

“Based on my seven and a half years at MBTA, I have personally observed, determined, and found numerous instances of latent or hidden construction and manufacturing safety defects, omissions, failures or errors in design, engineering, construction, assembly, hardware, software, and manufacturing systems leading to safety critical hazards, events and mishaps,” Nickle said in his statement.

It’s difficult to assess the veracity of Nickle’s claims, but the whole debate about safety is one worth having – in public. The control board has done a great job over the last four years of forcing the MBTA to confront its challenges openly, but it’s clear the board is not a true oversight agency. Board members prod and push, but they rarely grill T employees and prefer to keep dirty laundry private. Is that the right approach, or do we need a more independent board?

–BRUCE MOHL

 

BEACON HILL

State lawmakers are planning an oversight hearing of the Registry of Motor Vehicles for later this month in the wake of reports that thousands of out-of-state violations by Massachusetts drivers were stashed in a room and untouched for more than a year. (CommonWealth)

New regulations would place a “gag order” on a committee overseeing solitary confinement in Massachusetts jails and prisons. (MassLive) Attorney Margaret Monsell accused the Baker administration of undermining the committee in an op-ed on Sunday. (CommonWealth)

Supporters of two bills that would require manufacturers to disclose information on certain hazardous chemicals in children’s products said Monday that such notice could help prevent parents from exposing their kids to dangerous substances. The legislation, filed by Sen. Cindy Friedman and Rep. James Hawkins, would require the state’s Administrative Council on Toxics Use Reduction to develop a list of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals in children’s products. (Standard Times/ SHNS) 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Less than two years after legalizing in-law apartments, Salem officials are now debating a change to the ordinance so those units could be rented out in addition to being used by family or caregivers. (Salem News)

Three businesses in East Bridgewater will carry doses of opioid overdose-reversing medicine naloxone through a partnership between the police department and substance use outreach group EB HOPE. (Brockton Enterprise)

Five projects are in the works on the Lynn waterfront. (Daily Item)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

New sex trafficking charges against Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected off-shore money manager, has reignited scrutiny over Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s decision more than a decade ago as a federal prosecutor to give Epstein a cushy plea deal. (Washington Post) The deal, which Epstein’s victims did not know about, resulted in 13 months in jail in Florida, where Epstein was able to work out of his office six days a week, as The Miami Herald previously reported in a blockbuster series about the case.

A federal appeals court panel will hear arguments Tuesday on whether a federal judge in Texas was correct in striking down the Affordable Care Act, a case with enormous stakes not only for millions of people who gained health insurance through the law but for the political futures of President Trump and other candidates in the 2020 elections. (New York Times)

The new, brash, liberal women of Congress cannot be swatted away like the back-benchers of old, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t try to marginalize them, writes Joan Vennochi. (Boston Globe)

Congressman Joe Kennedy III and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley describe what they saw at migrant detention facilities in El Paso and Clint, Texas, including people who hadn’t showered in weeks and didn’t know where their children were. Pressley also dodged a question about Pelosi’s comments, but said “there will be plenty of time for that.” (WGBH)

Confusion reigns over Vice President Mike Pence’s last-minute cancellation of a trip to New Hampshire last week. (Eagle-Tribune)

ELECTIONS

Even without fundraisers, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pulled in $19.1 million over three months, which puts her behind only Joe Biden and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the second quarter haul. (NPR)

California Congressman Eric Swalwell became the first Democrat to drop out of the presidential primary contest, announcing he will seek re-election instead. (Associated Press)

School Committee member and retired educator Paul Coogan leads the pack of Fall River mayoral candidates with campaign money in the bank. Coogan and two others are hoping to unseat Mayor Jasiel Correia II. (Herald News) 

Amy McGrath, a fighter pilot and Democrat who ran for Congress last year, is now mounting a campaign against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. (Associated Press)

Noting the anti-busing furor that propelled “racist firebrand” Louise Day Hicks from Boston to Congress a couple generations ago, Richard Cohen bemoans Sen. Kamala Harris for dredging up an issue that is divisive among Democratic voters. (Washington Post)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

An affiliate of Millennium Partners notified the city of Boston of its plan to build a 900,000 square foot innovation campus in the Seaport District. (Boston Business Journal)

Sanofi Genzyme sold two buildings in Framingham as the company prepares to consolidate operations in Cambridge. (Metrowest Daily News)

EDUCATION

Chinese students represent a third of all international students on US college campuses, but many are now feeling unwelcome because of scrutiny from the federal agents tasked with rooting out espionage, and a number of university presidents are now speaking up for them. (Boston Globe) In January, CommonWealth wrote about UMass Boston severing ties with an academic center funded by the Chinese government.

Vermont town says yes to a novel school merger with a bordering Massachusetts community. (Berkshire Eagle)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

How Washington state is dealing with the health care costs associated with an aging population. (Governing)

Dr. Kamau Karanja, medical director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center, wants to find the right questions to ask his young patients to determine if they are at risk of gun violence, but he is encountering a reluctance to talk about gangs and other topics. (WBUR)

TRANSPORTATION 

Gov. Charlie Baker came out in support of the MBTA’s decision to terminate a chief safety officer who is now claiming the transit agency fired him for raising safety concerns. Ron Nickle was terminated in March the day after he allegedly raised concerns about critical safety issues on the MBTA. (Boston Herald) The T is pushing back against Nickle’s claims that he was fired because he flagged safety issues, contending that Nickle was terminated because of a number of internal complaints claiming that he was demeaning, condescending, and dismissive of viewpoints that differed from his own. (Boston Globe)

Jesse Mermell and Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee urge state officials to consider the many benefits of water transportation. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The groping case against actor Kevin Spacey lost its footing Monday when Spacey’s accuser invoked his right against self-incrimination during questioning about a cell phone of his that has gone missing and Judge Thomas Barrett said the case might be dismissed. The accuser’s mother, Heather Unruh, acknowledged deleting information from the phone that showed her son getting high and partying in college. (Boston Globe)

A federal judge has denied the Rockland officials’ request that he dismiss a lawsuit against the town filed by former town administrator Allan Chiocca alleging sexual harassment, wrongful termination, slander and other charges by more than a half-dozen defendants. (Patriot Ledger) 

Seventeen people, including an 8-year-old girl, were wounded by gunfire in Boston between late Wednesday night and Sunday evening. Police have not yet made any arrests and declined to share much information about the victims, who are all expected to live. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen insists his colleague did Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins a favor by laying out how her approach to prosecutions is playing out.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting is officially merging with WGBH. (WGBH)