The Rev. Eugene Rivers 3d, a prominent minister in Boston, blundered badly last month when he presented Keolis North America with a $105,000 invoice for services related to promoting diversity in the hiring and ridership of the state’s commuter rail system. This startling document, which was signed by Dorchester minister Bruce Wall, came across as a self-serving pressure tactic, and it only harmed the cause of promoting diversity in public contracting.
Globe columnist Adrian Walker reported this week on the invoice and a bizarre conversation between Rivers and Keolis spokeswoman Leslie Aun in which Rivers allegedly described himself as “secret ops’’ and capable of making life difficult for Keolis should it fail to live up to the diversity standard of the “DRM Advisory Group’’ that included several ministers and community activists working in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Rivers denies making the “secret ops” remark and others attributed to him in the article.
Nonetheless, the invoice that appears on DRM Advisory Group stationery reads as if its members are far more interested in lining their own pockets than helping businesses in low-income communities thrive as part of the new $2.6 billion commuter rail contract. It’s certainly true that minority-owned businesses have struggled for decades to keep pace with growth in the local economy. They benefit when upright elected officials, activists, ministers, and other trusted voices in the community speak up on their behalf. But in this case, the ministers and activists hastily formed what appears to be a consulting business and issued a bill for research, advice, a statement of public support, and other services for which they never even entered into a contract.
As part of its contract with the MBTA, Keolis is required to award at least 15 percent of its vendor contracts to businesses owned by minorities and women. The company said that it hopes to exceed that requirement, and it needs to seek out promising vendors who will help it do so. But that’s not a call for community activists and men of the cloth to suddenly turn into paid recruiters. Ministers, in particular, should know better than to affix a price tag on their credibility. When they do, they send a disturbing message — that promoting diversity is a cynical matter of writing checks to community leaders, rather than an authentic effort to support emerging businesses.
Keolis spokeswoman Aun stands by her characterization of Rivers’s comments. It was clear, she said, that Rivers intended to impede progress if the company failed to adopt his group’s agenda. Rivers said he handed the invoice to Aun to get the company’s attention, not to make money from the deal.
Regardless of the different interpretations, the incident could well reach the ears of the US Attorney, who is responsible for investigating any efforts to obstruct, delay, or affect commerce by means of extortion. And that is the last thing that Boston’s minority neighborhoods need as they ponder what opportunities may arrive by commuter rail in the coming years.