Baker consultant wields influence on commuter rail, charter schools
On one side was the commuter rail company with one of the largest contracts in state history, seeking still more money to run the system. On the other, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, charged with holding this company accountable.
But a review of e-mails obtained by the Globe shows that a consulting firm working for Keolis Commuter Services helped orchestrate the communication strategy with the administration on a controversial proposal to grant the company an additional $66 million in July.
“Really important that everyone be aligned on messaging, along with game plan for media briefing next week,” wrote Eileen O’Connor, a partner in the firm and Keyser’s wife, in a June 30 e-mail to Baker’s communications director, his press secretary, and communications directors for the MBTA and Department of Transportation. “Can we try to pull together a 30 min in-person meeting early next week to discuss? . . . You are welcome to just e-mail me and I’ll quarterback.”
The Baker administration is supposed to ensure taxpayers get the quality train service they were promised with Keolis’s $2.68 billion contract. But the scores of e-mails released in response to a Globe public records request suggest a close relationship between the administration and the lobbying and media firm operated by O’Connor and Keyser.
Baker’s senior adviser, Tim Buckley, described O’Connor’s correspondence as routine communication between the administration and a state vendor. And there is no evidence that O’Connor or Keyser used their influence to win the additional $66 million for maintenance, schedule changes, and additional locomotives and coaches.
E-mails also show O’Connor and Keyser have worked closely with state officials to help lead Baker’s fight to increase the state’s number of charter schools. O’Connor and Keyser are registered lobbyists paid to advocate on behalf of pro-charter school organizations.
“Our firm provides media and communications advice to our clients, and we are proud to have Keolis and Great Schools Massachusetts as clients,” O’Connor said in a statement.
A Keolis spokeswoman said in an e-mail: “We hired Keyser because of their significant knowledge and experience of Massachusetts media.”
The Baker administration said in a statement that Keyser Public Strategies’ “interactions with the administration regarding Keolis are strictly limited to communications strategy and media planning, not contract negotiations, management, or policy decisions.”
But there is no way to gauge the full extent of the firm’s influence on state government on behalf of its clients. The Baker administration, like its predecessors, has maintained it is not subject to the state’s open records law and will not acknowledge whether it has withheld additional e-mails involving Keyser Public Strategies. The governor’s office said it voluntarily releases some records on a case-by-case basis, including this batch involving Keolis.
The Globe requested the e-mails when working on a story published in July about influence on Beacon Hill and the tradition of political consultants helping candidates win elections and then representing corporate clients with interests before the new officeholder. The Baker administration said in July that Keyser and the governor confer weekly, most often by telephone.
Baker’s staff did not provide any e-mails until last month, after publication of the earlier story. The records show Keyser secured meetings with high-ranking state transportation officials on behalf of his client Lyft, the ride-hailing firm. O’Connor spearheaded what the e-mails described as a “biweekly transportation comms meeting” with top officials from the governor’s office, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, and others.
“Please make every effort to attend in person,” O’Connor wrote in an April 20 e-mail that did not reveal the pressing issue that officials discussed. “We should make this the primary agenda item, as the meeting will not go a full hour. Any questions, give a call.”
O’Connor may have been working for Keolis, but in e-mails she mapped out issues for state agencies to discuss at the biweekly meetings, identified “action items,” and on Nov. 4, 2015, suggested tweaking a quote from Frank DePaola, who was the T general manager at the time, in a draft press release.
O’Connor attended a meeting in November and wrote to a state Department of Transportation spokesman: “Don’t think it’s weird that I’m here. We have a bunch of clients whose work touches transportation stuff. Deloitte, Keolis, Lyft, Fix Our T coalition.”
In a February e-mail, O’Connor wrote to a member of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board that she wanted to be helpful but would probably work “more behind scenes because of Keolis relationship.”
In a statement, Baker’s communications director, Elizabeth Guyton, said, “Staffers from the administration regularly confer with vendors who provide services to the state, like Keolis, to effectively communicate with the people of Massachusetts and ensure pertinent information is conveyed about services that people rely on, like the commuter rail.”
Last week, Baker defended the MBTA and said it “made the right decision” when it waived $839,000 in penalties assessed against Keolis during the epic winter of 2015. Baker pointed to a provision of Keolis’s contract that allowed the MBTA to forgive fines for “acts of God.”
When Baker’s office replied to the Globe’s public records request, the administration provided 236 pages of e-mails that came with a letter from deputy chief legal counsel Cathy Judd-Stein. The letter warned that “certain responsive documents have been withheld or redacted” because the “Office of the Governor is not . . . subject to disclosure under the public records law.” Judd-Stein and Buckley would not answer follow-up questions about how many, if any, e-mails had been withheld.
“On that question,” Buckley said, “I am going to refer you to the communications that you already exchanged with our legal office.”
Baker has described himself as “a big believer in transparency,” but, like previous administrations, his staff cited a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court decision regarding judicial nominating questionnaires as precedent that public records law does not apply to the governor’s office.
In contrast, most documents are public records at Boston City Hall, including the e-mails and personal schedules of the mayor and his top staff. That information is not public at the State House, where the governor’s office can operate in secret because it asserts it is not subject to the law.
E-mails that were released by the Baker administration showed that O’Connor’s and Keyser’s influence went beyond transportation. O’Connor spearheaded weekly charter school conference calls to plot strategy for legislation and a Nov. 8 ballot initiative with a group that included the state secretary of education, Jim Peyser; the governor’s legislative affairs director, Ryan Coleman; and other state officials and lobbyists, e-mails show.
The material included a tally of how senators planned to vote on a bill to expand the number of charters. In an e-mail, O’Connor outlined plans to state officials for a pro-charter school rally on Boston Common at which Baker’s lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, spoke.
In another e-mail, O’Connor divided up lobbying tasks for their pro-charter coalition, which includes other lobbyists and state officials. O’Connor’s battle plan included assignments for the governor’s office: Lobby Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and “schedule a meeting for core group of ‘yes’ legislators in Senate to come together and encourage them to continue with their support and advocacy.”
Guyton, Baker’s communications director, said in a statement, “The administration often communicates with outside experts to help advance legislation, including . . . charter school legislation to give children in underperforming districts access to high quality public schools.
“In this case,” Guyton said, “staff communicated with public charter school advocates to help get the bill passed.”