The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority could be considered this state’s good-will ambassador, hosting more than 1,000 events over the past five years from scientific conferences to weddings, many attracting guests from around the world.
But, inside the agency, an increasingly bitter debate over alleged racial discrimination is putting leadership on the defensive at a time when there are no Black people among the authority’s 25 highest paid employees and no diversity officer charged with creating opportunities for people of color.
Over the past month, four Black employees filed formal complaints with the state attorney general charging racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, and working conditions. A fifth employee, who is white, also filed a complaint, alleging he was given warnings after objecting loudly to what he considered the heightened security at Black-sponsored events. He was fired shortly after filing the complaint.
The five complaints follow an anonymous letter from several employees of color to Governor Maura Healey in January urging her to replace executive director David Gibbons, a holdover from the Baker Administration, and the rest of his leadership team.
“The MCCA leadership has created an unwelcoming environment and culture for employees of color,” said the Jan. 9 letter. “We do not feel welcome at this institution. We are concerned that if we speak out individually, we may lose our jobs or face retribution.”
A spokesman for Healey said the governor’s office is “reviewing the letter and will be reaching out to MCCA employees to meet with them and hear their concerns.” A spokeswoman for Attorney General Andrea Campbell confirmed that the office has received “several complaints about this issue” and is reviewing them.
Gibbons, a former hotel manager and artist who took over leadership of the authority in 2015, said his team does not discriminate based on race or anything else. MCCA communications director David Silk said he was unaware of the complaints filed by the four Black employees and said the agency is currently looking to hire a diversity officer.
“All MCCA guests and employees are expected to be treated equally, with courtesy and respect, and if any staffer falls short of that, we are dedicated to taking corrective action and have done so, terminating two employees in the recent past for mistreating co-workers,” said Gibbons in a statement.
Silk added that no group is subject to heightened security or treated differently from any other, noting that the authority hosts events catering to a wide array of interests and groups.
Gibbons suggested the complaints were being orchestrated by politicians, including City Councilor Michael Flaherty and South Boston state Senator Nick Collins, who oppose his leadership. He alleged that both politicians have promoted their allies for jobs or raises at the authority — charges they vehemently deny — and became vengeful after the authority “balked.”
Collins, whose district includes the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport, told the Globe the allegations against Gibbons and his leadership team are “disturbing and unacceptable.” He demanded an “independent and thorough investigation.”
“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Collins, who several months ago relayed employee concerns to the authority.
The Convention Center Authority, which employs nearly 400 people, runs two of the most high-profile public spaces in Boston — the 516,000-square-foot convention center in the Seaport as well as the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay, which is about two-thirds smaller. The authority also runs the Boston Common garage and owns the MassMutual Center in Springfield, which is managed by a private company.
Gibbons, who has two years left on his $265,000-a-year contract, was chosen to lead the agency by a 13-member board that included seven selected by former Republican governor Charlie Baker. Gibbons’s supporters say his critics are amplifying the racism complaints in hopes that new Democratic Governor Healey may give them control of the authority. Healey can replace members of the board at any time.
Gibbons defends his overall performance, saying he turned around the agency which was hemorrhaging money before he took over.
“In seven years, our team has reformed the MCCA from an agency with fiscal holes and too much patronage to one that runs like a business, highlighted recently by the authority’s best financial year ever,” he said.
But racial discrimination complaints have flared up under Gibbons’s leadership. In 2019, the agency settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by a Black former human resources manager who alleged she was bypassed for promotions and then asked to train the people hired instead of her.
Natasha Hall was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, employees said. But they learned how much the confidential settlement was anyway — $1.2 million — because someone left a copy on an office printer.
More than three years after the Hall case settled, the authority still lacks a diversity officer, whose job would be to build and support a diverse and supported workforce. A Globe review of six other state quasi-public agencies found that all but one has a person serving in that role.
Several employees of color interviewed by the Globe said they believe they are paid less than their white counterparts and their efforts to advance have been thwarted. The highest paid Black employee earns $106,000 a year, 28th highest among MCCA employees in 2022. But the employees said that if they complain, they are subjected to increased criticism and scrutiny.
“I haven’t been given fair compensation or equal opportunities while working for the MCCA,” wrote one Black employee in a complaint to the attorney general on Feb. 10. “They have increased my duties while paying me far less than the people before me.”
The cascade of criticism began on Jan. 9 when a group of MCCA workers sent their unsigned complaint to Healey. It originally appeared as a tweet.
“Boston as a city that is now majority-minority continues to take steps to appeal to a diverse international audience, yet the MCCA seems determined to keep Boston trapped in the past,” said the letter.
Two days later, on Jan. 11, the organization held its first ever bias training session, several employees said. Employees said it was scheduled before the employees sent their letter to Healey.
At the session, one of the agency’s handful of Black event managers said she had noticed that events that mostly draw Black attendees — for instance, a meeting of Black lawyers — were handled differently than those where most attending were white, according to people who were there. In interviews, other employees were more specific, saying, among other things, that non-white event managers are assigned to events with mostly non-white guests.
Royal Smith, a Black business owner who sponsored the meeting of Black lawyers, said he noticed security officers at the outdoor event, even though he hadn’t requested them.
“It was just uncomfortable,” he said. “You know when you’re being watched. You know when management is following you. This is Boston.”
Robert O’Shea, the agency’s longtime community liaison, alleged that he was terminated in February after repeatedly standing up on behalf of Black guests and employees.
In his complaint to the attorney general, he said he got in trouble for lashing out when security guards over-patrolled events sponsored by Black organizations, including a Men’s Event last August organized by City Councilor Brian Worrell and Kirk Faustin, a member of the Black Men and Boy’s Commission.
“A white security guard showed up and started wanding people” with a hand-held metal detector, said O’Shea’s lawyer, Charles Kazarian. “Bob went off on him. The rule is, if the organizer wants security, they are allowed to have it. But no one asked these young men and boys to be subject to scrutiny. No one at the event requested it. There were heated words and Bob was subjected to intense scrutiny after that.”
Without referring to O’Shea by name, Silk said he was “terminated for cause, including but not limited to ongoing inappropriate and harassing behavior toward co-workers and homophobic slurs.”
Silk said all attendees at Convention Center events are required to undergo security screening.
The racism allegations are not limited to MCCA employees. Outside vendors have also complained that bidding for contracts at the authority has been stacked against minorities.
Smith, who owns District 7 Tavern in Roxbury, said he had hoped to bid on a contract to provide food and beverage service for functions on the Lawn on D Street in the Seaport. But the request for proposals said that bidders needed to already have a liquor license in the South Boston, Seaport, or Fort Point Channel area.
No minority companies hold liquor licenses in South Boston. In fact, there are only eight licenses in all of Boston assigned to Black-owned businesses, according to the Black Hospitality Coalition, which Smith cofounded.
“I was forecasting at least $10 million [in revenue] a year” from winning the contract, he said. “But I saw those lines — you have to be from South Boston or Fort Point Channel and we couldn’t apply. This is what happens in Boston.”
Joyce Leveston, a Black woman who worked as general manager at the Convention Center for a little over a year, said she didn’t experience discrimination while working there. But she said she doesn’t question the employees who said they were.
Leveston said the employee complaints “could all be true. I don’t know if everything is done intentionally. That’s the thing about discrimination. It ain’t new. It’s systemic.”
Some of Gibbons’s apparent spending priorities have also drawn criticism. Last April, the authority installed a massive $150,000 dragon sculpture outside of the Convention Center on D Street — money that could have gone toward hiring a diversity officer or to pay for COVID bonuses that had been promised to employees.
“Someone at the MCCA may need their head examined,” said City Councilor Flaherty. “Time for the new administration to look under the hood and put an end to the Convention Center’s wasteful spending.”
But MCCA officials defended the purchase of the sculpture, saying the money came from a special art fund, not its operating budget.
”The Dragon on D is representative of the MCCA’s continued efforts to showcase public art throughout our properties,” said Silk.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.