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Posted April 27, 2002
Don't Talk Back
A man on the spot
Is a Haitian school-bus driver caught in a web of post-September 11 suspicion?

MARCUS JEAN says he’s been caught up in the anti-immigrant hysteria that’s swept the nation since September 11. His former employer says he plotted what could have been a deadly act of terrorism — bombing a company building. The story might sound like a he-said-they-said dispute. But it has come to epitomize the potential injustices faced by immigrants in the post-September 11 atmosphere.

On January 31, Jean, a Haitian immigrant who has worked as a school-bus driver in Boston, had an argument with his boss over a parking matter at the Laidlaw Corporation bus terminal in Readville, located near Hyde Park. Voices were raised. Words were exchanged. Jean even went so far as to charge terminal manager Richard McLaughlin with discrimination. The brief conversation ended in Jean’s suspension. And the story might have ended then, too, were it not for what occurred several hours later. Unbeknownst to Jean, his manager went to the Boston Police Department, where he filed a criminal complaint on behalf of Laidlaw alleging that Jean had made terrorist threats against the company — to wit, he’d "threatened to blow up the building."

Prosecutors have charged Jean with "threats to commit a crime" under a Massachusetts statute that dates back to 1836. Although he hasn’t been charged under the federal legislation passed in the wake of September 11 (which reclassifies some domestic groups as "terrorist"), Jean and his growing cadre of supporters, from fellow bus drivers to immigrant-rights advocates, believe the changed sociopolitical landscape since the terrorist attacks has influenced his case. Laidlaw officials have even cited the tragedy as reason to prosecute Jean. In complaints like this, which don’t involve felony charges, the aggrieved party must go before a court clerk, who determines probable cause. When McLaughlin appeared at West Roxbury District Court on March 15 to argue the company’s complaint, he invoked the attacks by saying, "Post-9/11, we really have to be careful," according to Boston attorney Barry Wilson, who represents Jean. Three other courtroom observers, all of them members of United Steel Workers of America (USWA) Local 8751, which represents 800 or so Laidlaw bus drivers including Jean, have verified the account. McLaughlin’s rationale convinced Jean and his colleagues that Laidlaw is exploiting today’s intolerant, law-and-order climate to retaliate against a driver who, at worst, mouthed off to his boss.

Wheels of injustice
September 11 hysteria outweighs a lack of evidence in charges against a Boston school-bus driver

Laidlaw officials are quick to dismiss the September 11 connection. The company’s director of human resources, Jack Reilly, insists Laidlaw’s complaint has "nothing to do with September 11," although he says he has "no knowledge" of the March 15 probable-cause hearing. He maintains that the only reason Laidlaw is pressing charges against Jean is to thwart workplace violence. "If a threat was made, we have an obligation to take it seriously," he says. "This has to do with acting responsibly to protect all employees."

Maybe so. But there’s little doubt that, were it not for September 11, Laidlaw’s complaint would probably have been tossed out by now. At the March 15 proceeding, McLaughlin and another company official presented no eyewitness testimony to corroborate the charges against Jean. Wilson and the three union officials who were present have told the Phoenix that the court clerk wondered aloud about its veracity. In the end, though, the clerk expressly stated that, "in light of 9/11," he could not be too careful about an alleged terrorist threat — thus continuing Jean’s case. Wilson suspects that the complaint, which he calls "a play upon our paranoia post-9/11," would have had no credibility were it heard September 10, 2001. "These days, everyone seems paranoid about blown-up buildings," he says. "Apparently, you can accuse someone of trying to blow up a building and, all of a sudden, he’s in the middle of a circus."

THE NOTION that Jean, a 49-year-old naturalized US citizen who lives in Roslindale, could be labeled a terrorist is so surreal that he’s become something of a cause célèbre within Greater Boston’s immigrant community. He’s appeared on Haitian radio programs and been featured in Haitian newspapers. His case has even caught fire among Boston-area immigrants generally — from Hondurans and Salvadorans to Guatemalans and Colombians. Just last month, four immigrant-rights organizations in and around Boston hosted a March 23 solidarity rally for Jean that attracted as many as 400 immigrants.

Tito Meza, of the Proyecto Hondureño 2000, a Chelsea-based group that helped organize the event, explains that the average immigrant finds Jean’s case "relevant." Since September 11, more and more immigrants who work hard and pay taxes — many of whom have legal papers and work permits — are losing their jobs. Some, like Jean, are facing criminal charges. Immigrants now fear that any minor incident or mistake will be used against them. "People identify with Marcus," Meza says. "They see his case is based on prejudice. It’s a product of the backlash against immigrants in the US."

On the surface, Jean comes across as the antithesis of terror. Tall, strapping, and sporting a mustache, he boasts a bright smile and a quiet yet genial disposition. His colleagues at the Laidlaw school-bus yard in Readville — one of four yards in Boston — paint him as a diligent worker and devoted family man, a father of four young children who spends much of his leisure time at his Baptist church. "Marcus is a very serious, committed person," says Frantz

'Apparently, you can accuse someone of trying to blow up a building and, all of a sudden, he's in the
    middle of a circus,' says Jean's attorney, Barry Wilson.   

Mendes, a fellow driver who first befriended Jean as a boy in his native Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. "He never purposefully gets in people’s way. He just goes about his business." Jean puts it another way: "I have respect for what I do. I take pride in my life."

In retrospect, it seems, Jean’s pride set off the chain of events leading to his current plight. On January 30, right after 5 p.m., he drove his empty bus into the Readville terminal, where some 200 school buses are housed daily. He had just finished his route shuttling schoolchildren from the Renaissance Charter School, located downtown, to neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. Like most drivers at the end of a 10-hour shift, he wanted nothing more than to park his bus and head home. But first, he had to pick up after the kids who’d been on the bus.

So Jean stopped his vehicle in front of a dumpster, a common practice among the drivers, and cleaned. "I was sweeping out my bus," he recalls, when a fellow driver entered the yard and tried to park — to no avail. Jean had inadvertently blocked several spots, which the other driver did not appreciate. "He was in a rush," says Stevan Kirschbaum, a 27-year employee who was sitting in his bus near the dumpster at the time. Irritated, the driver leaned on the horn, as if to say, "Get out of the way." Yet this didn’t faze Jean. "I was busy cleaning," he recalls. The driver — an older, white man whom USWA members decline to identify — grew so agitated that Kirschbaum felt compelled to intervene. "I shouted to the guy, ‘Hey, chill out. It’s no big deal,’" he says. "Marcus just emptied his trash. I don’t think he even said a word."

By the time Jean completed his task, the other driver had left. But not before he griped about the annoying encounter to Diane Kelly, then the assistant manager at the Readville yard. When Jean entered the yard’s management trailer, where drivers punch a time clock, Kelly called him into her office. "She thought we had an argument," Jean remembers. He downplayed the incident, telling her it was "no big deal." Kelly, he says, warned him not to park before the dumpster. She did not reprimand him, or issue a written warning. Adds Jean, "She said, ‘Okay. Go home.’"

Jean didn’t think twice about the dumpster — that is, until the next day. On January 31, after finishing his route at 10 a.m., he entered the management trailer, where a handful of drivers were milling about. Jean had come to the facility seeking copies of a training letter that he needed to renew his bus-driver’s license. He approached McLaughlin, who oversees the Readville yard, and asked for a copy. It wasn’t long before the manager inquired about the dumpster. "He asked, ‘What happened last night, Marcus? Tell me,’" says Jean, who recalls replying: "I already talked to Diane." Jean, in other words, was making it clear that he knew his rights; according to union rules, once a manager addresses an issue with an employee, it’s closed. It cannot be broached again. Still, he says, "Rick kept needling me."

This was not the first time that Jean had bumped up against McLaughlin. Several weeks earlier, he had had a disagreement with the manager after a child had vomited on his bus. Jean had stopped en route to clean the mess, causing him to run an hour late. But when he applied for overtime, he says, the manager refused the request. Jean later filed a union grievance — and won. Yet the victory seemed bittersweet. McLaughlin, Jean says, "told me he was going to get me anyway."

Those words lingered in Jean’s mind on January 31. But he felt he’d done nothing to warrant a reprimand. "I told Rick, ‘This is unfair.’ He wasn’t giving the other guy a hard time," Jean says. Indeed, union rules specify that if McLaughlin wanted to raise the matter a second time, he should have spoken to both parties. By all accounts, the conversation between the two devolved into a shouting match. Jean accused the manager of discrimination. McLaughlin, in turn, demanded Jean return to the trailer with a "shop steward," which, to a driver, means that disciplinary action is imminent.

Eventually, Jean sought out his childhood friend Mendes, who serves as a union steward for the Readville drivers. Mendes escorted Jean to the trailer, where he says McLaughlin accused Jean of terrorism. "He said Marcus had threatened to blow up the building," which Mendes presumed to be the trailer. (Although the criminal complaint does not specify a building, the only structures at the yard are the management trailer and an adjacent break room for drivers.) McLaughlin suspended Jean with pay, pending an investigation into the charges. He ordered Jean to fill out an incident report detailing their previous argument. The driver did so, maintaining his innocence. "At no time," he wrote in the January 31 report, "did I use any threats or misconducted myself." The accusations alarmed Mendes, who insists Jean "is not a person who would even joke about threats." He thought the matter too serious to be resolved on the spot, especially since he had to start another bus run. Mendes requested more time. "I had to go," he says; and so he and Jean left.

Evidently, McLaughlin did not honor Mendes’s request. Almost four hours after speaking with Mendes, McLaughlin entered Boston police station E-18, in Hyde Park, and filed a criminal complaint against Jean on behalf of Laidlaw. According to the report, McLaughlin told police that Jean had become "really irrational and loud" after an argument "regarding the parking of the buses in the lot." He then detailed this scenario: "The suspect became even more upset and began calling ‘Blanco’ and making racial statements in Creole.... The suspect threatened to ‘blow up the building,’ and saying he didn’t care if he got fired, and that if he went to jail, he’d ‘get someone else to blow up the building,’ and if he ‘got out,’ he’d come back and ‘blow it up.’"

Those are dramatic statements, for sure. But McLaughlin’s account of what happened January 31 — which Jean vehemently denies — has yet to be corroborated. Many of the drivers who witnessed the conversation back up Jean’s version of events. In fact, Wilson, Jean’s attorney, plans to file at least four sworn affidavits on May 2, when Jean will appear for a pretrial hearing. According to these documents, one Haitian driver who has worked at the Readville yard for nearly 10 years confirms that Jean never suggested he’d harm anyone or anything. At no time, the driver’s affidavit states, "did Jean threaten McLaughlin in English or in Creole. The whole discussion was only in English." The most inflammatory thing to come out of Jean’s mouth that day were his heated claims that, according to the driver, "McLaughlin did not believe his version of what happened the night before ... because he was not one of ‘McLaughlin’s people.’"

Another Haitian driver echoes these sentiments in a second affidavit: "Jean said he was being treated unfairly, and discriminated [against]. They argued about this point." He then adds, "This conversation was entirely in English. Jean did not speak in Creole, knowing that McLaughlin could not understand."

Jean himself offers rather wryly, "I wonder when [McLaughlin] learned to speak Creole. No one has heard him speak it" to Haitian drivers — who make up 80 percent of the Laidlaw drivers. Which means, of course that he wouldn’t have been able to translate the alleged racial statements either. McLaughlin, for his part, did not return two phone calls from the Phoenix seeking comment for this article. And Reilly, the Laidlaw human-resources director, refused the Phoenix’s formal request to interview the manager. He also declined to answer any specific questions about the complaint — including whether McLaughlin, a younger, white man who is known to insist that drivers speak English on the job, can actually understand Creole. Says Reilly, "I am not going to talk about the contents of the criminal complaint."

Kafkaesque: immigrant school-bus driver Marcus Jean (right photo) mouthed off to his boss and found himself named in a criminal complaint charging terrorist activities.

Still, the manager's allegations have had devastating consequences for Jean, who did not find out about the criminal charge against him until February 8, one week after the complaint was filed, when he received a court summons in the mail. By the time he appeared in West Roxbury District Court on February 28, he had been suspended for nearly one month - despite his unblemished personal file. Steve Gillis, a fellow driver and the union steward assigned to represent Jean, has seen Jean's file and describes it as "immaculate." It contains an application, medical evaluations, and criminal-background checks, which drivers must undergo when renewing licenses. The file reflects not one vehicular accident - a rarity for drivers who navigate city streets in vehicles full of 70 kids, Gills notes. "No one can say he's a problem employee." Even so, on March 1 Laidlaw fired Jean for his alleged threats, after concluding an internal investigation - which, according to Gillis, was conducted by McLaughlin himself.

marcus jean photo.gif (29078 bytes)

It’s bad enough that Jean has lost his job. Now, however, he must also grapple with the serious legal ramifications of a criminal complaint that he and others find absurd. "This," he says, "is a set-up."

DRIVERS AND union representatives say that, while criminal complaints are exceptional, Jean’s experience isn’t isolated. McLaughlin has gained a reputation among drivers for being, in the words of one, "rude, crude, brash, and threatening." This year, he is disciplining drivers for "absolutely no reason," says Mendes. Take the affidavits that will support Jean’s criminal defense. (Because the documents have yet to be filed in court, the Phoenix has withheld the witness’s names.) One Haitian driver testifies that in late January, right around the time when Jean had trouble with McLaughlin, he went to see the manager about overtime — and was shot down. Two days later, McLaughlin called the driver in his office with a steward. According to the driver’s affidavit, "McLaughlin said, ‘I want you to file an incident report admitting that you threatened to beat me up in my office.’" The driver refused and has since filed a grievance against McLaughlin for "falsely accusing me of making threats of physical violence against him."

Another Haitian driver who has worked at the yard for the past four years asked McLaughlin for a pay adjustment back in September. Two months later, the manager met the driver with a shop steward to discuss the matter. At the meeting, according to the driver’s affidavit, "McLaughlin charged me with threatening serious violence against management" — going so far as to accuse the driver of plotting the manager’s death. "He said to me, ‘You threatened to put a member of management into the funeral home. I take this as a serious threat.’" The driver, who was suspended from work for one week, has also sought recourse through the union because McLaughlin "falsely accus[ed] me of threatening management."

As many as two dozen grievances alleging unfair, if not unscrupulous, treatment by McLaughlin have surfaced in recent months — so many that high-level union officers and Laidlaw executives convened what’s been described by union members as an unprecedented emergency meeting at the Readville yard last February. One driver who attended the February 15 session maintains that about a half-dozen drivers came forward to charge the manager with "harassment, threats, and intimidation." The driver relayed that, on several occasions, the manager tried to deflect criticisms by ignoring them. But when that didn’t work, McLaughlin, according to the driver, "would reach into his desk drawer and pull out what appeared to be a .38 caliber pistol and point it in my direction." McLaughlin has used the gun, a starter pistol, to frighten away at least three shop stewards, union officials say. In the words of Gillis, who has read the grievances about McLaughlin, "This year, he is really out of whack. It’s like he’s gone mad."

Given this backdrop, it’s hard not to see Jean’s case fitting into the pattern. After all, he’s not the only employee to be fired because of McLaughlin. This year, the union has witnessed a record number of terminations — more than 10. At least three involve McLaughlin lodging accusations against employees. In a typical year, maybe one or two people get fired. Observes Gillis, "We haven’t seen this many firings since 1985," when Laidlaw got rid of 45 drivers during a fierce contract dispute. In this context, he notes, the only thing unique about Jean’s situation is that the company "used 9/11 and charged him with terrorist threats."

At the very least, these complaints raise questions about McLaughlin’s credibility. But Laidlaw officials seem eager to back their manager. Reilly implies that the drivers who criticize McLaughlin’s style have "other agendas," rather than a desire to rectify bad management. He refused to confirm the February 15 meeting. Nor would he comment on the seemingly steady grievances filed with the union against the manager — the type of grievances of which the company is routinely made aware. "I haven’t seen the complaints," he says. "I have no knowledge of them." Asked if his department has ever received complaints about the Readville manager, he replies, "McLaughlin is not on trial." He then adds, "A judge and a jury will decide the merits of these criminal charges, not anyone else."

IN THE COURT of public opinion, though, Jean has come out the clear victor. Close to 50 people from immigrant-rights and civil-rights groups — including Boston Labor’s ANSWER, a group of labor leaders from local unions that has formed the Marcus Jean Defense Committee — turned out March 15 at the West Roxbury District Court to protest. Meza, of Proyecto Hondureño 2000, and many of his colleagues made a point of showing support for Jean because, he says, "Marcus is a hard worker who stood up for his rights — and got caught up in today’s climate."

Such unwavering support has buoyed Jean as he continues his fight. On the union front, he has filed a grievance against McLaughlin for "bringing false claims to the police" — an act seen as "a most serious violation of the contract." The grievance now awaits arbitration, which means that a neutral party affiliated with the American Arbitration Association will weigh evidence and determine whether Laidlaw had just cause to fire Jean. The union wants the firm to reinstate Jean and to "remove any discipline from his file, and make him whole for all losses."

In the meantime, of course, he has to contend with the criminal-justice system. Some issues in his case may be settled by May 2, when a motion to dismiss the complaint will be heard in court. Wilson, Jean’s attorney, has filed the motion to dismiss the charge of threatening to commit a crime because, he says, "it is rather absurd." Not only has Laidlaw offered no eyewitnesses to substantiate the claims, but the manager making them appears highly suspect. Though Wilson believes the evidence warrants dismissal, he knows the current law-and-order climate doesn’t work in his client’s favor. "It’s hard for me to take this complaint seriously," he says, "but I have to defend Marcus. And with the wrong judge, anything is possible."

If found guilty on the criminal complaint, Jean risks six months in prison and a $100 fine — the maximum penalty for his charge. But it could also ruin his best shot at justice: his arbitration. Union representatives suspect that, given his personnel file and the evidence, Jean could actually win his arbitration — yet still lose his job. Massachusetts law dictates school-bus drivers exhibit "sound moral character," something that might be questioned were Jean’s criminal complaint to drag on.

It’s a Catch-22 that has left Jean battling sleepless nights. Every day, he worries about the future — how he will feed his family, secure another job, live with dignity. "All I do is worry," he says. After years of working toward what he calls "a better life," he cannot quite believe that his fate now hinges on one man’s word. His reputation has been tainted, his family hurt. Says Jean, "This has put me down — and for what? It’s all a big lie."                                                                                                                                                                                           Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi@phx.com.  

Issue Date: April 25 - May 2, 2002

© 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group

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