The resignation of the former acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration comes while Democrats are blocking a vote on a permanent leader — and as train-related deaths climb.
A top official charged with overseeing the safety of the nation’s railroads has resigned “effective immediately,” the Department of Transportation said Saturday after POLITICO raised questions about whether he was simultaneously working as a public relations consultant in Mississippi.
The news comes at a time of strain for the Federal Railroad Administration, which hasn’t had a permanent leader for more than a year while it investigates a string of fatal train crashes and deals with a rising trend of rail-related deaths.
Heath Hall became the Federal Railroad Administration’s acting chief after being appointed deputy administrator in June. But he subsequently appeared at least twice in local media reports last summer as a sheriff’s department spokesman in Madison County, Miss., where he has long run a public relations and political consulting firm.
The firm also continued to receive payments from the county for its services from July through December, despite Hall’s pledge in a federal ethics form that the business would be “dormant” while he worked at DOT. And Tiffany Lindemann, a former FRA public affairs official who left the agency in September, told POLITICO this week that she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall during the summer.
This was during a period when Hall was in charge of an agency with a $1.7 billion budget, overseeing the safety of 760 railroads, a multibillion-dollar freight rail industry and the safety of millions of passengers.
Hall has been on an extended leave of absence since last month due to what the FRA has described as a family emergency. But DOT officials said Saturday, after reviewing POLITICO’s latest questions, that his departure is now permanent.
“We were unaware of the information that is being reported but those allegations, if they are true, are troubling,” DOT spokeswoman Marianne McInerney said in a statement Saturday. She added, “Heath Hall has resigned his position at the Department effective immediately.”
Attempts to reach Hall were unsuccessful.
Since January, the agency’s reins have rested in the hands of chief counsel Juan Reyes, a New York attorney with a background primarily in public-private partnerships, who became the acting deputy administrator in January.
But that still leaves the agency without a Senate-confirmed administrator with the leeway to make big policy decisions. Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have blocked a confirmation vote for President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the agency, former railroad executive Ron Batory.
It’s a bad time for the agency to have a leadership vacuum: Amtrak has experienced four fatal crashes since December, including one involving a train carrying members of Congress to a Republican retreat in West Virginia. Last year’s 828 railroad deaths nationwide was the highest total in at least a decade, according to FRA data. And many railroads are set to miss an end-of-year deadline to install a crash-prevention technology that has spawned years of friction between the industry and Congress.
“I think a leaderless and rudderless agency is less effective,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a vocal rail safety advocate. “And this one has a preeminently serious and potentially life-and-death responsibility for safety on our railroads.”
Others who deal with the agency fear that a shortage of top leaders will slow its work.
“It’s just a lot for anyone to do,” said Jo Strang, a former FRA official who’s now senior vice president for safety and regulatory policy at the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. “You’re supposed to have three bodies filling those slots, and you have one.”
Republicans have made the most noise about the blockade on Batory, using the issue to blast Schumer after each fatal train wreck in recent weeks.
“This worrying spate of accidents offers a sobering reminder that partisan obstruction has kept the Federal Railroad Administration, the top rail regulator, without an administrator,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a speech Monday, a day after two Amtrak employees died in a collision between a passenger train and freight train in South Carolina.
Batory “has more than 40 years of rail experience,” added McConnell, who is also the husband of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “I know of no questions about his qualifications.”
Schumer has held up a vote on Batory while pushing for more federal money for a massive rail project in and around New York City. His office declined to comment this past week about the nomination or calls for him to end his blockade.
While Batory waits in limbo, he’s serving as a senior rail adviser to Chao but cannot make decisions or issue orders, the railroad agency said.
Meanwhile, Hall briefly took the agency’s reins when he became deputy administrator — and acting administrator — in June. But he requested a leave of absence in January “so that he could address an urgent family matter,” the FRA said in a statement Friday, two weeks after POLITICO reported that he had departed. “He remains on leave.”
Before then, there appeared to be some uncertainty about how single-mindedly Hall carried out his task.
Hall, who ran a PR and consulting firm called Strategic Marketing Group LLC in Madison, Miss., pledged in his financial disclosure form last year that the business “will remain dormant during Federal service.” State records indicate his wife, Wendy, took over from him as the company’s “Manager, Member, President” on May 11.
But Heath Hall’s name continued to show up sporadically in news reports in Mississippi as a spokesman for the Madison County Sheriff’s Department — including an August report on a Jackson television station’s website about the drug and DUI arrest of a police dispatcher. A segment that aired in August on a second Jackson TV station cited Hall as a sheriff’s spokesman in a story about a carjacking, though he did not appear on camera.
Lindemann, the former public affairs official at the railroad agency, said the Mississippi reporter who kept calling for Hall “was adamant about the fact that Heath was the [public information officer] for the sheriff’s department,” based on what he’d been told.
Lindemann said she didn’t remember what news outlet the journalist represented and didn’t know whether he ever made contact with Hall.
Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker could not be reached for comment. But county records show that Hall’s firm received $12,000 in payments through the sheriff’s department from July through December, though it’s unclear in the records whether the payments were for services before or after he took the job in Washington.
Hall’s company even got a no-bid, $75,000 public relations contract from the county Board of Supervisors the same week he joined DOT — a move that brought objections from two of the five board members, who wondered why the county wasn’t letting other firms compete for the work. The supervisor who pushed the contract was one of Hall’s firm’s clients, the Madison County Journal reported at the time.
One supervisor, Sheila Jones, questioned whether the consultant had done much to earn his pay when the county had previously hired the company. “I asked him to show up at all the meetings, and he didn’t,” she said, according to a recording of the debate.
Hall declined the latest contract days later, the Madison County Journal reported, saying that “now is not the right time to add the County our portfolio of clients.”
In its initial answers about Hall’s employment this week, the railroad agency said he “has exceeded federal legal requirements by signing the ethics pledge pursuant to the President’s Executive Order.” The agency added that Hall was recused from any work “substantially related to his former employer or clients.”
Asked in November about the Madison County Journal reports, a DOT spokeswoman told POLITICO that Hall’s firm “is fully dormant and is not accepting any clients. Mr. Hall is fully focused on his duties as the FRA Deputy Administrator in an effort to help strengthen [the] organization’s mission.”
The spokeswoman also said political appointees like Hall who don’t need Senate confirmation were not required to divest from their business as long as it posed “no area of conflict including time.”
Still, Meredith McGehee, a government ethics expert and strategic adviser at the Campaign Legal Center, said it “raises serious conflicts” for someone to serve as a spokesman for both a federal agency and a local government body. “Your first and primary responsibility is to your position as a public official,” she said.
Whoever oversees the agency — for now it’s Reyes — has a full plate of issues to contend with.
Those include enforcing a December deadline for railroads to implement a anti-collision technology called positive train control, which Congress first mandated in 2008 after a deadly collision in California. The FRA can grant extensions of up to two years in some cases, and dozens of the 41 railroads affected by the mandate are expected to start asking for more time this summer. Reyes will testify this week before a House Transportation subcommittee on positive train control implementation.
While the FRA has dozens of employees dedicated to the issue, lawmakers will typically look to the political leadership when holding the agency accountable for its work. The agency said Friday that Chao has gotten involved personally, writing in January to 41 railroads and “reminding them of this important safety mandate.”
“Safety is and always will be the FRA’s top priority,” the agency said.
Brianna Gurciullo contributed to this report.