transit

Lax Background Checks Led to Risky MTA Hires, Probe Finds

MTA workers walk along tracks.
MTA workers walk along tracks. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Bungled background checks allowed some people convicted of serious crimes to become city bus drivers, according to a new report from the MTA inspector general.

The report, obtained by THE CITY, flags New York City Transit and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services for “significantly deficient” screening of new hires — 15 years after a report by the MTA’s then-inspector general raised similar red flags.

“Management needs to address this important safety matter promptly,” MTA Inspector General Carolyn Pokorny said in a statement. “Such diligence could mitigate the costly and risky process of hiring, training and then eventually firing employees who were never eligible to be hired in the first place.”

The report says the city’s administrative service agency — which handles background checks for some transit workers, including station agents, train operators and bus drivers — failed to contact prior employers or educational institutions for nearly 80% of the people it screened over the course of one year.

New York City Transit’s own background investigation unit, the report says, did little to backstop the screenings handled by the city.

“The riders, taxpayers and MTA workforce deserve an effective hiring process that ensures new employees are qualified, appropriately vetted and terminated quickly if they are found to have concealed significant facets of their past,” Pokorny said.

State law puts background screening for select civil service employees of two MTA agencies — NYCT and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — in the hands of DCAS investigators. New York City Transit runs checks on non-civil service employees.

‘Safety Sensitive Positions’

But the structure leads to lax oversight, the report says — allowing at least 11 bus operators to slip through the screening without disclosing past convictions for felonies that included rape, robbery and gun possession.

According to the report, many of the eventually fired employees had been on the job so long that they “were working in safety sensitive positions with direct customer contact.”

The 11, of some 2,600 bus operators trained between January 2015 and August 2017, were let go after NYCT’s own background checkers later discovered the criminal histories.

The inspector general’s report says the two bureaucracies appear to have poor communication with each other and standards that are at odds.

The report recommends that “agency leaders develop a strategy to accomplish the longer-term goal of becoming an independent civil service agency.”

That would require a change to state law. In 2013, New York City Transit ended an “unsuccessful multi-year effort” to change the law, the report noted.

A ‘Seriously Flawed’ Report

A statement from the Department of Citywide Administrative Services called the inspector general’s report “seriously flawed” and blamed New York City Transit for delayed delivery of key details on the “limited number of background checks we do conduct.”

“As the audit says, NYCT regularly takes months to provide critical information needed to conduct background checks, including forms where applicants disclose past convictions,” Nick Benton, an agency spokesperson, said in a statement to THE CITY.

He noted that DCAS has repeatedly “escalated the need for documentation for specific candidates” at compliance meetings with New York City Transit senior management.

The agency also disputed the report’s findings about the bus drivers who were let go for not disclosing prior convictions — contending they must have been working for formerly private bus companies now controlled by the MTA and that are not subject to city background checks.

The spokesperson took issue with the report’s contention that DCAS didn’t contact prior employers or educational institutions for nearly 80% of the people it screened. The agency is only responsible for checking out the education and work histories of people with a criminal record, the spokesperson said.

Aaron Donovan, an MTA spokesperson, described New York City Transit’s background checks as “rigorous,” and said there had been “no reported issue” pinned on “an employee not being properly screened.”

But in a response to the report’s recommendations, the agency acknowledged “there are serious financial, external and operational constraints that limit the extent to which [MTA inspector general] recommendations can be implemented at this time.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.

SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!