IN APRIL, the Boston Globe reported on its front-page that nine senior managers at the MBTA had primary residences more than 100 miles from the nearest T station. It was the latest eye-catching story suggesting dysfunction at the troubled transit agency. Over the next several days, however, the newspaper published a series of corrections saying its information was incorrect about four of the people.
One of those individuals, Michele Stiehler, the MBTA’s chief of paratransit, said the story, by making her appear to be a no-show employee, did “irreparable damage” to her reputation. “It eroded my confidence and undermined the relationships that I built at the MBTA,” she said.
The Globe story also did a great deal of damage to its author, Andrea Estes, who was fired because of the multiple corrections. It was an unceremonious ending for a veteran reporter who over the course of her career has helped expose corrupt hiring practices at the state’s probation department, uncovered evidence that led to the indictment and conviction of former House Speaker Sal DiMasi on bribery charges, and investigated what went wrong at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home during the pandemic.
But a probe into the background of how the story unfolded has revealed a jarring truth: The damage to both Stiehler and Estes could easily have been avoided.
A reconstruction of the story timeline, along with copies CommonWealth Beacon obtained of internal communication between the T and state transportation department, shows that Stiehler and Estes were victims of a state bureaucracy that failed to stand up for its employees. At the MBTA, workers are advised not to talk to reporters, leaving that job to public relations officials. But in this instance the MBTA public relations officials, on orders from higher-ups at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, ignored calls from Estes seeking to verify the information she had gathered. The result was a story that unfairly tarred at least three employees at the MBTA and caused the firing of Estes.
Estes, seeking to reclaim her job, is headed to arbitration with the Globe, so neither she nor Nancy Barnes, the paper’s editor, would talk. State transportation officials are also refusing to comment, despite the pledge by Gov. Maura Healey that her administration would be as transparent as possible.
The big mystery in all of this is why MassDOT would tell MBTA public relations officials to ignore calls from Estes and allow inaccurate, damaging information about some T employees to end up in her story. Some have speculated that MassDOT welcomed the Globe story on T managers working remotely as a way of pressuring those workers to return to in-person work or to get rid of them – too bad if some employees who weren’t working remotely got burned in the process.
Meanwhile, friends of Estes at the Globe think there’s more to her firing than the corrections to her story. Other reporters at the Globe have had embarrassing corrections and retained their jobs. The friends of Estes speculate, without much evidence, that the corrections presented an opportunity to fire Estes because she wasn’t liked by some in top management.
Putting all the speculation aside, what is amazing is that no one at MassDOT has explained to Stiehler – who lives on Beacon Hill and walks to work – why she ended up in a Globe story about MBTA employees who work remotely hundreds or even thousands of miles from the T.
“I felt that the accusations were easily refuted and was disappointed that they made it to print,” Stiehler said in an email. “Honestly, I am completely baffled at how I even made it into the article.”
CAN THE MBTA RESPOND?
The Globe began its investigation into remote employees at the MBTA in March, reporting that Jay Neider, who oversaw major capital projects for the T while working from Hawaii and other distant location had been terminated from his $275,000-a-year job. The story was written by Estes and two Globe colleagues, Matt Stout and Taylor Dolven.
Estes moved on to see if other top employees at the MBTA had similar work arrangements. She scoured deeds, databases, and voting records trying to figure out where the executives lived. It was tricky work, particularly if people owned a vacation home in one state and rented an apartment in Boston. There would be a record of ownership of the vacation home, but often no direct link in public records to an apartment. As a result, Estes reached out to the MBTA and the individuals she was targeting to confirm whether her interpretation of the records was accurate.
Standard policy at the T is for employees to refer press calls to the public relations department. According to internal MBTA emails obtained by CommonWealth Beacon, several employees received calls from Estes and reached out to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo to see if he would talk to Estes on their behalf.
Jennifer Tabakin, who is overseeing the South Coast Rail project, received an email from Estes on April 19 explaining that she was working on a story about MBTA managers who appear to live far from T headquarters. The email said Tabakin appeared to live in Great Barrington. Estes asked Tabakin to “explain how you are able to do your job with your homebase more than 100 miles away.”
Tabakin emailed Pesaturo and informed him about the Estes email. “Will there be a response from the MBTA?” she asked. “I don’t want to be named in the paper. I am way too introverted for that and it wouldn’t be fair. So you know, I am in Boston at the same rental apartment since I started here in 2019. I walk my dog around Boston Common after work. What should I do?”
There was no email response from Pesaturo.
After the story appeared, Tabakin wrote Pesaturo saying she thought the press office was going to respond to the Globe.
Stiehler’s interactions with Estes followed a similar pattern, although she insists she never was contacted directly by Estes. She knew a story was in the works, however, and became alarmed when someone from the Globe reviewed her LinkedIn profile. She asked Pesaturo on April 21 about the press inquiries.
“Hi Michele,” Pesaturo responded. “MassDOT has directed us to ignore the Globe’s questions.”
After the Globe story appeared the next day, reporting that Stiehler lives primarily in Sparta, New Jersey, Stiehler sent an email to Pesaturo expressing her frustration. “I live in Boston and work in the office every day,” she said. “I sold my primary residence in NJ in February 2022. The Sparta reference in the article is for a small vacation home. Can the MBTA respond? Can I respond?”
The Estes story walked a fine line, whipping up outrage about the MBTA while noting that nothing the employees were doing technically violated the transit authority’s remote work policy.
“The MBTA is facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence in its service, punctuated by slow trains, endless delays, and gruesome accidents,” the story said. “Yet, many top T managers live far from the troubled system they’re trying to rescue and some are rarely seen in person by their employees. A Globe review has found that nine senior managers (including one who has left the agency) have a primary residence more than 100 miles from the nearest T station — and some much farther.”
Gov. Healey wasted no time in condemning the T managers who were working remotely. “You will see quick action on our team’s part in response to this,” Healey said. “It is incredibly upsetting to me that people in senior management, not only don’t they live in Massachusetts, but are working remotely.”
In subsequent days, however, the Globe began running a series of corrections to the story, which lowered the number of senior managers with a primary residence more than 100 miles from the nearest T station from nine to six. The corrections all appear to be based on conversations with T officials or the senior managers themselves, who talked to the Globe directly, which is what Estes had sought to arrange before publication.
The first correction quoted Dennis Lytton, the deputy safety chief at the T, as saying “he has not worked remotely since starting the job in February.” The original Globe story said Lytton had an apartment in the Boston area, according to co-workers, but his wife and children were in Los Angeles. The story also reported that his LinkedIn page said he worked for the MBTA but lived in Los Angeles.
The second correction said Stiehler, the T’s chief of paratransit, lived in Boston and walks to work. The original story said her primary residence was in Sparta, New Jersey, where she was registered to vote.
The third correction said Tabakin owned a home in Boston within walking distance of T headquarters. The original story said she lived and voted in Great Barrington, 120 miles from the nearest T station.
A fourth correction said Ronald Ester considered his home in Massachusetts his primary residence. The original story said Ester owned a home in Massachusetts, but his wife still worked in Chicago and T employees said he spent a lot of time there. The story also said he was registered to vote there.
At some point after the last correction appeared, the Globe terminated Estes. Shortly afterward, Barnes, the Globe editor, sent an email to staff pledging to get to the bottom of what happened with the MBTA story, according to Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy’s Media Nation blog.
“I want to acknowledge the concerns individuals have raised about the multiple corrections in the recent MBTA story about executives living remotely,” Barnes said. “I am still working to unravel all of this and so there is not a lot I can say publicly for now except this: We will hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes because trust is so essential to us as journalists.”
There also may have been additional collateral damage from the Globe story, although it’s difficult to know for sure.
Barnes sent another email to Globe staff on May 19 announcing that Scott Allen, Estes’s editor, was leaving the newspaper. The email lauded Allen and his work over many years at the paper, making no mention of the MBTA story, which Allen edited, but the timing raised a lot of eyebrows.
At MassDOT, there were similar strange coincidences. Internal email traffic indicates Pesaturo, the T spokesman, provided regular updates to officials at MassDOT about inquiries from Estes. Most of the time the emails went to Audrey Coulter, the MassDOT liaison to the T, but occasionally others were copied, including Carla Tankle, deputy chief of staff, and Gina Fiandaca, the secretary of transportation.
In August, Fiandaca left the secretary’s job abruptly after just seven months in the post. Neither she nor the governor said why she left. Coulter and Tankle, whom Fiandaca recruited to MassDOT from posts with the city of Boston, lost their jobs when Fiandaca’s replacement, Monica Tibbits-Nutt, was sworn in as acting secretary on September 11.
Tibbits-Nutt appears to have no interest in dredging up what went wrong with her department’s handling of the Globe story. Her spokeswoman was asked via an email a series of questions, including who ordered Pesaturo not to defend T employees, why Coulter left MassDOT, and why no one at the transportation agency ever reached out to the T employees incorrectly included in the Globe story to explain why their employer threw them under the bus.
“MassDOT has no comment on your questions,” a spokeswoman said.