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1st Quarter 7:17

JOAN VENNOCHI

Patrick’s quiet, and disquieting, response to the Keolis shakedown

Governor Patrick said “one guy” was behind the Keolis “invoice.”

Governor Patrick said “one guy” was behind the Keolis “invoice.”

SO FAR, Governor Deval Patrick has said little about the incident involving two well-known black ministers and a $105,000 invoice they presented to Keolis North America, the French company that recently won a blockbuster contract to run the state’s commuter rail system.

Asked about it during a recent WGBH radio appearance, Patrick said he supported the concept of pushing for diversity in the Keolis contract. DRM — the consulting group the ministers represented — should not be judged by the actions of one member, the governor added.

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“Do I think the whole program is tainted because one guy allegedly tried to control it? No, I don’t,” Patrick said on the radio show, without identifying who the “one guy” is. “I don’t think there’s any evidence of that either.”

So, as the governor sees it then, this is just a classic case of how business gets done in Massachusetts. Well, if this really is business as usual, is that the message he wants to send about the Bay State way?

But Patrick’s soft-pedaling brings up another, more troubling question as well: What exactly is the governor’s definition of “diversity” anyway? The contract Keolis ultimately won requires the company to make sure 15 percent of its vendors represent minority groups. That’s a worthy goal, but very different from paying off a group of self-selected, self-serving minister/consultants for unspecified services.

Here are the basic facts, as reported by Globe columnist Adrian Walker: During a meeting with a Keolis representative, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III handed over the $105,000 invoice for services the company contends were never discussed; according to the Keolis rep, Rivers claimed that he was working “below the radar” and that he was “special ops.” The Rev. Bruce Wall signed the invoice.

Wall has since said the invoice was intended to push Keolis to engage the black community.

As Wall explains it, he was shaking the company up, not down.

Of course, most stories, whether of shake-ups or shakedowns, are not as simple as they first appear. This one has its own twists, turns, and unexplored avenues of inquiry.

For much of last year, Wall, along with other black clergy, lambasted Keolis, arguing that the French parent company was a bad choice for Massachusetts. The company has been accused of discrimination against African and Muslim employees and criticized for its collaboration with Nazi leaders 70 years ago.

During the bidding process, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail Co., the incumbent contractor and Keolis’s competitor, did its best to get out that negative news.

With help from Wall and others, it was somewhat successful. Last December, Wall even asked the MBTA to reject the Keolis bid, citing its alleged discriminatory employment practices. But then in January, Wall mysteriously reversed his position. At the public hearing held to take the final vote, Wall said that after talks with the company he “wholeheartedly” endorsed it.

And so, with Wall’s blessing, Keolis won the $2.7 billion contract to run the state’s commuter rail system.

Somewhere in that chronology lies the whole truth behind the $105,000 invoice that Wall signed and Rivers presented. What exactly was said to Wall during those talks with Keolis to change his mind? Did it have any implied or explicit dollar signs attached to it? Did he or others get money from Keolis’s rival, while they were criticizing Keolis?

If the governor seems less than curious about the circumstances, so does everyone else. No political leader, black or white, has spoken out publicly about the unpleasant picture painted by Walker’s column.

The Bay State Banner took aim at Rivers, who is disdained as a huckster who turned on the black community. Wall, who is more popular, escapes criticism — yet he’s the one who actually signed the invoice.

Where is the outrage over what could be grounds for criminal prosecution? At a minimum, it’s an example of the low bar for what counts as leadership in the local black community.

Patrick and other politicians of color were more upset when federal agents shut down Touch 106.1 FM, an unlicensed radio station that’s popular with black listeners. Reporting he was “incredibly disappointed,” the governor said he tried to dissuade the US Marshals and agents from the Federal Communications Commission from carrying out their mission.

On the other hand, however, he’s not disappointed at all by the profiteering playing out behind the scenes of a lucrative state contract award.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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