Additional reporting by Reuven Blau
On Tuesday, the MTA declared its new acting chief and two other top executives would “make announcements” at noon — but the sexual harassment investigation embroiling Gov. Andrew Cuomo apparently got in the way.
Cuomo had earlier revealed plans for a new international terminal at Kennedy Airport that will connect to the existing gateway for JetBlue, which will stay in Queens after considering a move to Florida.
But the MTA sent out an “EVENT POSTPONED” email shortly after State Attorney General Letitia James began detailing how her investigation concluded Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women. That upended a scheduled noon event with Janno Lieber, whom the governor installed last week as acting chairperson and CEO.
“No comment” was all an MTA spokesperson said when asked by THE CITY whether James’ report was behind the late change of plans at an agency famously micromanaged by Cuomo.
The latest upheaval comes as the MTA is battling its way out of crisis, with subways and bus ridership far below pre-pandemic level, staff shortages snagging commutes and efforts to convince all employees to get vaccinated lagging.
Cuomo has made transportation infrastructure projects and overhauling the MTA a major part of his legacy — passions tackled with an iron fist. Those who used to be under his thumb say it can be hellish.
“It was like some type of banana republic,” said James Vitiello, who quit the MTA board in 2018, a little more than two years after being appointed by Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive and a one-time challenger to Cuomo. “He made my life miserable to the point where that was ultimately the deciding factor in resigning from that board.”
‘Total Leadership Vacuum’
Even as Cuomo defiantly rebutted the 168-page report by the AG’s office revealing “deeply disturbing” allegations of sexual harassment, the fallout could have significant impact on his ongoing bid to re-shape the MTA’s top roles.
“Terrible for the MTA, total leadership vacuum,” a former top agency official who asked not to be named told THE CITY. “How can he reasonably set priorities for the MTA under this cloud?”
Albany legislators pushed back in June on Cuomo’s attempt to make Lieber the MTA’s chief executive officer and install former interim New York City Transit President Sarah Feinberg as MTA chairperson.
When state law required Cuomo to fill the top job last week, he named Lieber the acting head, while saying “the best long-term approach” would be for Feinberg to return as the chairperson.
But multiple sources told THE CITY that plan could be threatened with the governor facing possible impeachment.
“His chances of manipulating the legislature just slipped away,” said another former MTA executive who used the word “tyrant” to describe Cuomo. “They’re not going to go with anyone from his side.”
Feinberg did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY. But last week she said she hopes to join Lieber in “leading the MTA and region through this next chapter.”
A ‘Demeaning’ Atmosphere
Cuomo’s hard-charging style and enormous influence over the MTA has repeatedly driven out top executives at the transit agency, insiders say.
They point to the resignation of popular transit chief Andy Byford in January 2020 and the exit one year earlier of Cedrick Fulton, the head of MTA Bridges and Tunnels. Then there was the late 2018 retirement of John O’Grady, an MTA official who helped shape a planned full-time shutdown of the L line’s East River tunnel before Cuomo junked it.
“To have a governor come in and say you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, it’s demeaning,” one former executive said. “And he’s done that with so many people at the MTA.”
Board members, labor leaders and former MTA officials said Cuomo tightened his grip on the mass transit operation with the help of longtime lieutenant, Larry Schwartz, who also sits on the agency’s board.
Vitiello said he was subjected to “constant, implicit intimidation” after challenging MTA spending in 2017 as head of the board’s audit committee.
“I was trying to be a real audit chair, but it quickly became obvious they weren’t looking for one,” Vitiello told THE CITY. “They were looking for someone to basically corroborate whatever they decided they were going to do.”
Another former board member, Charles Moerdler, who said Cuomo “prefers to take on the character of a tough guy,” said the hands-on governor has been good for the MTA.
“He has been there at all times to give it help,” he said. “Yes, he is a micromanager and there are lots of bad things, but that’s better than someone who is not there at all.”
But with Cuomo’s political future again in question as President Joe Biden led calls for his resignation, his control over the MTA may be loosening.
A spokesperson for Transport Workers Union Local 100, which until recently was aligned with Cuomo, declined to comment on the governor’s latest travels.
The city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, has called on Cuomo to quit.
At least one other big union is still considering its options.
“We are in transition. We just had new officers of the union who just got sworn in yesterday,” said Wayne Spence, president of the Public Employees Federation, the second largest municipal union in the state.
“I’m getting ready to get into a meeting with those new officers” to talk about it, he added.
‘Dark and Stressful Place’
Transit advocates said their goals for the transit system remain unchanged.
“We’re focusing on holding the governor accountable to his role to riders today and the need for a reliable, affordable system,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy director for Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization. “That isn’t a political game, but a lifeline for millions.”
Vitiello, the former board member, said he is hopeful the MTA will eventually “be a true independent authority” should Cuomo leave office.
That hasn’t been possible, he added, with Cuomo in charge.
“It became a very dark and stressful place if you were trying to do the job,” he said.