Keolis accused MBTA of meddling in hiring

Letter: T actions caused loss of repair chief

THE TOP OFFICIAL at the state’s commuter rail operator raised concerns in a December letter to the MBTA that agency officials were undermining efforts to hire an experienced executive to oversee train repair and maintenance.

Thomas Mulligan, who at the time was the chief executive at Keolis Commuter Services, wrote a letter on December 24 to two MBTA officials, General Manager Beverly Scott and Chief Operating Officer Sean McCarthy, in which he raised concerns that T officials were trying to sabotage the hiring of Matthew Reddell as chief maintenance officer.

“Mr. Reddell has asserted that an MBTA official contacted both his current employer (Bombardier), and another member of the industry, to in essence undermine KeoloisCS’s effort to hire him,” Mulligan said. “If true, such behavior would erode the trust and partnership which KeolisCS and the MBTA are seeking to build and cannot be tolerated.”

Mulligan’s letter casts the months-long vacancy in the chief mechanical officer’s position in a very different light than it has been portrayed previously. T officials have criticized Keolis for failing to fill the maintenance job at a time when as many as 20 locomotives have been out of service. But the Mulligan letter suggests Keolis was hamstrung in filling the post by T interference.

The letter said part of the delay in finding a chief maintenance officer was caused by T officials pressuring Keolis to hire the person who held that job with the previous operator of the commuter rail. The letter also said Reddell felt T officials tried to scare him off by asking him if he “really knew what he was getting into” and mentioning the possibility that Keolis “was at risk of being defaulted in early 2015.”

The Mulligan letter and a handful of other documents were obtained under a public records request. Mulligan, who resigned his post in February, could not be reached for comment. Keolis declined comment. Reddell is no longer working at Bombardier, a company spokesman said.

The chief maintenance officer at Keolis is in charge of repair and maintenance for commuter rail locomotives and trains, which have been plagued by recurring problems. The system currently has 55 of its 65 locomotives working; at one point, a few as 44 were operational, which, when combined with the heavy snowfall, contributed to reduced schedules and long delays that inconvenienced thousands of commuters.

Filling the maintenance job has not been easy for Keolis. The French firm initially planned to hire Paul Garnett to fill the post, but he was disqualified by MBTA management during the selection process last year for a new commuter rail operator. Keolis then brought in David Plumb, but he stepped down last August for health reasons. The position has been vacant ever since with the duties covered by other officials.

According to Mulligan’s letter, the search for a replacement was slowed by “the MBTA’s insistence that KeolisCS seriously consider hiring the CMO who had served the previous operator through June 30, 2014.” Mulligan said Keolis did not want to hire the former maintenance officer, but explored the possibility until late October, when it was determined he was not available.

By mid-November, Keolis had decided to hire Reddell, a military veteran who had previously worked at Amtrak and was currently working as a chief mechanical officer at Bombardier, a leading aerospace and transportation company based in Montreal. According to Mulligan’s letter, Reddell was given a 20-minute interview on November 20 by MBTA officials, who quizzed him on whether he knew what he was getting into.

Mulligan apparently raised concerns about the interview because the T’s McCarthy sent him an email on November 21. “We did have a conversation with Mr. Reddell to alert him to the daunting challenges that exist relative to the position he is applying for both in terms of aged rolling stock and workforce,” McCarthy said in his email. “His resume makes him a viable candidate but the responsibility for determining if he is the right person for the job rests with Keolis.”

Keolis offered Reddell the job and he planned to start January 5, but Mulligan’s letter indicates T officials continued to interfere. Mulligan said he learned on December 18 that Reddell would not be taking the Keolis job because of “contact allegedly made by an MBTA official to his bosses at Bombardier (before Mr. Reddell had notified Bombardier that he was exploring another opportunity), as well as an executive at another company in the industry known to Mr. Reddell. According to Mr. Reddell, the essence of the message conveyed by the MBTA official to both Bombardier and the other executive was the same: Why would Mr. Reddell want to take the KeolisCS job? Doesn’t Mr. Reddell realize he will be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ if KeoloisCS  ‘continues to underperform?’”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said Scott and McCarthy did not respond in writing to Mulligan’s letter but met with officials at Keolis. In an email to CommonWealth, Pesaturo defended the T’s actions.

“When someone is being considered for a critical position, it’s not unusual to contact a job candidate’s current or previous employer to learn about his/her past performance,” Pesaturo wrote. “Also, it’s not uncommon to provide an employment candidate with a description of the job and associated duties that come with it.  The MBTA had absolutely no objection to the hiring of this candidate. The MBTA will continue to do everything it can to support its commuter rail partner, as we work together to provide customers with the level of service they expect and deserve.”

Pesaturo is correct about the way potential employees are vetted, but in this instance Keolis, not the MBTA, was doing the hiring. Also, the T’s McCarthy had already approved Reddell’s hiring and told Mulligan the decision was his to make.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Mulligan, in his letter, asked the T to look into the agency’s actions in regard to Reddell. “If corroborated, such interference simply cannot be tolerated if the parties hereto hope to sustain a fruitful relationship built upon mutual trust and professionalism,” he wrote. “Importantly, moving forward KeolisCS and the MBTA need to reach an understanding as to the appropriate boundaries between the parties which reflect the MBTA’s interest, but also the reasonable autonomy to which KeolisCS should be entitled in matters of employment.”

CommonWealth in February asked both Keolis and the MBTA about problems surrounding the search for a new chief maintenance officer, but both declined comment. The magazine then submitted a public records request for all electronic and paper correspondence between Keolis and the T on maintenance issues, and was told it would cost $39,000 to assemble the documents. CommonWealth scaled back its request to written letters only, and received the lone Mulligan letter and a handful of emails.