An independent investigation into the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority found a pattern of unfair treatment and racial discrimination against employees and vendors at the independent state authority, according to an internal report released Thursday.
Black and Hispanic employees disproportionately work in the lower rungs of the organization, are paid less, denied advancement opportunities and “tend to feel isolated or marginalized,” according to a 112-page report from attorneys at Prince Lobel Tye.
Under the leadership of executive director David Gibbons, the quasi-public entity has been “much more focused on the financial bottom line” than on racial equity and inclusion, the report said. Investigators found that complaints from employees of color have not been taken seriously, and an effective process for handling complaints is nonexistent.
The investigation also found that allegations of over-policing and mistreating Black guests at convention center events were “entirely without merit,” according to the report.
It included several recommendations, including better efforts to increase employee diversity and improve efforts to investigate complaints at the center, which “runs a first-class event and conference operation.”
The authority released the report on its website Thursday following a seven-month investigation into allegations of racism. Center officials requested the inquest to address a growing number of complaints.
The findings are the latest evidence of problems at the state’s biggest convention authority that includes the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and several other facilities.
Gibbons released a statement Friday welcoming the report’s input. He said the board of directors is in the process of creating a task force to oversee the implementation of the recommendations.
“From increased outreach and recruiting of diverse new employees to opportunities for development and mentoring of existing team members, and strengthening supplier diversity, these recommendations from Prince Lobel Tye are truly worthy and provide instructive guidance,” Gibbons said.
“I look forward to working closely with them to implement forward-looking policies that promote the goals of the MCCA to open the many participatory opportunities to diverse communities and businesses.”
Matthew Fogelman, a Newton-based employment lawyer, says he’s not surprised by the report’s findings. He represents two current employees who have filed complaints against the authority with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a third client who is preparing a similar complaint.
“The report refers to a broad sentiment of distrust of authority management, including the [human resources] department, with employees reporting that they would avoid bringing complaints to HR because of that distrust,” Fogelman said. “That is definitely something that my clients have experienced.”
Fogelman represents 33-year-old Roxbury resident Cazneen Marlee Benjamin, who filed a complaint earlier this month against the authority with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.
Benjamin, who is Black, says she has been “consistently subjected to sexist and racist comments” from her supervisors, other employees and vendors at the authority while working as an events service coordinator since 2020.
When she reported the incidents to her supervisor, she says, she was told that “this will be handled internally so there is no need to go to HR.” Benjamin says after she complained to the guard’s supervisor, she was reported to human resources — and was subsequently disciplined in what she felt was a retributive manner.
David Silk, the convention center’s communications director, said officials couldn't comment because the case is a personnel matter. “We are necessarily limited in what we can say publicly to preserve the integrity of the review process,” he said.
Benjamin referred requests for comment to her attorney.
Though one only complaint had been formally filed when the investigation began, Fogelman says an increasing number of employees are feeling empowered to speak out about their experiences.
“That is quickly evolving, as people feel more ready to speak out and less fearful of retaliation or reprisal,” he said.
Fogelman also represents a man named Jermaine Sparrock who filed a complaint with the anti-discrimination commission in June. The 34-year-old Black employee alleges he is a victim of racial discrimination, a toxic work environment and racial bias that prevented professional advancement. He said he suffered an increase in work with no salary raises as well as repeated exposure to racist remarks.
In his complaint, Sparrock claims that during a holiday party in 2022, a high-ranking official at the center blamed riots during desegregation in the 1970s on “Black kids from Mattapan” and claimed that Boston Latin School had an “issue” after “letting in too many Black people” to “meet a quota.”
Sparrock claims that he hand-delivered a written note highlighting his concerns about the official’s comments to Gibbons’ office. But, he maintains that he was later told that the complaint was never received and his concerns were not addressed.
Fogelman says his clients "have to deal with Black employees being treated worse than white employees and not receiving the same opportunities for advancement.”
“These cases are about compensation, but they’re also about leaving the field better than you found it and improving conditions for the future,” he said.
Theirs are some of the latest complaints filed against the troubled center. In March, State Auditor Diana DiZoglio launched an audit of the authority, following calls from Black leaders to address “deeply concerning” allegations of racial discrimination against employees, vendors and convention guests. The audit will take roughly a year and a half, according to a spokesperson from DiZoglio’s office.
In June, Gov. Maura Healey installed seven new board members at the authority in an effort to increase diversity at the authority. The action came after she received a letter from employees of color who alleged “a history of quietly trying to suppress claims of discrimination,” a lack of Black leadership, heightened security at Black-sponsored events and pay inequity among employees.
In July, the authority brought on Herschel Herndon, its first-ever chief diversity officer.
Emme Handy, the authority’s board chair, said the board has “eagerly awaited” the report and looks forward to quickly and transparently implementing its recommendations.
State Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat who chairs the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said he anticipates “major changes” at the convention authority following the appointment of a new board, the internal review and the expected results of the state audit.
“I’m trying to be patient as much as I can,” Williams said. “Meanwhile, some folks are starting to come forward, so hopefully things change. I’m still waiting on this new board to really get engaged.”