Leslie Aun, spokeswoman for Keolis North America, met for coffee recently with Boston’s Rev. Eugene F. Rivers 3d. He was one of the community activists who had earlier met with Keolis to discuss how the company could promote diversity in running the city’s commuter rail system.
By the time the meeting was over, she said, she thought she had walked into a bad spy movie.
“He started talking to me about how he was ‘below the radar,’ how he was ‘secret ops,’ ” Aun recounted in a phone interview. “He made it very clear that if we didn’t deliver on what he believed to be our commitment, he was going to make our lives very difficult. He knew members of the media, particularly in France, and it was going to be bad. He had the power to do all this behind-the-scenes stuff.”
In previous discussion, “commitment” referred to Keolis’s assurances on diversity. But it took a whole new meaning when, at the end of the odd conversation, the veteran activist then handed Aun a sealed envelope.
After Rivers left, she opened it and found an “invoice” for $105,000 for what it said were services rendered to Keolis by something called DRM Advisory Group. The invoice, obtained by the Globe, lists such services as attending a meeting with Keolis ($10,000); development of a strategic services plan ($15,000); and developing a nine-point plan ($25,000) for Keolis North America to achieve diversity in hiring and ridership. It bore the signature of the Rev. Bruce Wall.
Aun immediately called Keolis lobbyist Michael McCormack, a former Boston city councilor who has been helping to introduce the French-owned company to Boston.
“I told Michael, ‘I feel like I just got shaken down. Is this illegal?’ ” McCormack advised her to disregard the invoice.
In a telephone interview with the Globe, Rivers confirmed that he had delivered the invoice. He did not discuss the specifics of the meeting, but said he was frustrated that Keolis was not acting on DRM’s proposals for diversity. Rivers did not respond to my phone calls Tuesday to answer additional questions about his conversation with Aun.
McCormack responded to the invoice with a strongly worded e-mail. “There was never any contract between you/DRM and Keolis for any ‘services’ and at no time during our initial meeting, subsequent meetings, or exchange of messages was there ever a discussion of money payments to you, DRM or anyone else for ‘services’ which appear in this purported invoice,” he wrote. “We did not expect to receive — and we certainly did not agree to pay — an invoice for services such as the one provided.”
DRM (for Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan) Advisory Group arose late last year, after Wall and other activists became concerned that the black community wasn’t getting anything out of the proposed rail contract. At first, before the state had awarded the $2.6 billion contract for running the commuter rail system, some black leaders raised questions about Keolis’s diversity policies — a move seen by some as helping rival company Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail. But when Keolis won the bid, the ministers struck up conversations with Keolis, the winner.
Keolis and the ministers held two meetings this winter. Subsequent meetings were discussed, but have yet to take place. The activists say they have gotten frustrated.
In an interview Tuesday, Wall described the invoice as a strategic gambit.
“We felt they were moving away from us,” Wall said. “So we decided that we would present them with the invoice. They would either move further away from us, or renew their commitment to work with us. We never really expected that they would pay it.”
Wall admitted that the demand for payment was odd, even though the invoice bears his signature. He suggested that it was the product of a group decision. “I didn’t really understand the strategy,” he said. “How could they owe us money when we never had an agreement? My name was placed on it because I am the spokesman for the group, as of this moment.”
The notion that Keolis should make a robust commitment to diversity at all levels should go without saying. As a company with no local ties whatsoever, it will need all the help it can get to accomplish that goal. Its contract calls for at least 15 percent of its vendor contracts to be awarded to businesses owned by minorities and women. Keolis says it believes it can exceed that fairly low bar, a pledge it should be held to.
Offering to serve as a broker to help provide diversity is a completely valid activity. Demanding $105,000 for agreeing to stop causing a company trouble is completely invalid.
The sides are scheduled to meet next week. But Wall said he would not attend if the meeting does not appear substantive. He added that he is considering stepping down as the de facto head of DRM, because he has not been able to deliver a deal with Keolis on behalf of the community.
McCormack, the Keolis representative, insisted that the company is ready and willing to deal in good faith. “We are committed to diversity and we are happy to talk to anyone to further that effort,” he said. “But we’re not paying anyone cash.”