State Auditor Diana DiZoglio said Monday that she is launching an audit of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority to look into allegations of racism in hiring, promotions, and procurement practices as Black leaders from around the state called for independent investigations.
In response, convention center authority officials said they would launch an investigation of their own, hiring a private law firm to review “our policies and procedures, including the experience of employees of color within the organization or those of event attendees of color.”
A Globe article Sunday detailed complaints from Black employees and a vendor, who alleged they have faced racial discrimination at the agency, which runs Boston’s two convention centers.
Four Black workers alleged in letters to the attorney general that they were paid less than white counterparts and given fewer opportunities, while a white employee alleged he was retaliated against after complaining that Black guests at the Convention Center were sometimes subjected to increased security.
“I’m deeply concerned about the issues raised by the Boston Globe which point to diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges,” said DiZoglio, who has said that social justice issues will be among her top concerns as auditor.
State Representative Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat who heads the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said that “on the surface” the allegations seem “very appalling.”
“What really disturbs me is there has been a pattern at this convention center for years,” said Williams. “People in the community have been talking about this for years. It’s gotten to the point where they say I won’t even apply. It has to be talked about. It’s very embarrassing to the state and especially to Boston. It gives it a black eye.”
He said his group is planning to issue a formal statement Tuesday.
A spokesman for David Gibbons, the convention center authority’s executive director, denied that the agency discriminates against anyone and said the authority has engaged the law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP and principal attorney Walter Prince to conduct a review.
“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,” said spokesman David Silk.
A Globe review found no Black employees among the 25 highest-paid employees of the convention authority, one of the few independent authorities in state government that does not have a diversity officer charged with creating opportunities for people of color. Authority officials say they are in the process of hiring their first diversity officer.
Complaints about alleged discrimination weren’t limited to employees. A Black bar owner said he had planned to bid on a lucrative contract for food and beverage service at the Convention Center’s South Boston outdoor recreation and meeting area but couldn’t because of the bidding rules. One of the requirements in the request for proposals was that bidders have at least one liquor license already in the South Boston, Seaport, Fort Point Channel neighborhoods.
No Black businesses have liquor licenses in South Boston, said the bar owner, Royal Smith, cofounder of the Black Hospitality Coalition.
Gibbons has 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.”
The Rev. Eugene Rivers, director of the Ella J. Baker House, and the Rev. Kevin Peterson, of the New Democracy Coalition, both called for the removal of executive director Gibbons while an independent investigation takes place.
“The claims that have been made about racism at the MCCA are serious and demand that we pay attention to what the employees describe as a toxic racial environment,” said Peterson. “The people of the Commonwealth and Black people in particular deserve to know what is happening at one of our most prominent agencies.”
Rivers planned to hold a news conference Tuesday outside the Hynes Convention Center, one of the facilities operated by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, where the NAACP held its convention more than four decades ago.
“It is unfortunate that we won’t be there to celebrate the progress our city has made since those troubling times in the 80s,” said Rivers in a statement. “Sadly, we will be there in response to the serious reports of systemic racism and discrimination at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.”
He said he and other Black leaders will meet with workers “at facilities across the city and state who still face discrimination and have called out for help,” he said. “We will be there to say to those employees: ‘We hear you; we see you and we stand with you.’”
He urged Attorney General Andrea Campbell to launch an investigation and urged Governor Maura Healey to install interim leadership so that “those who have been discriminated against are free from intimidation, harassment or retaliation.
A spokeswoman for Campbell said that “her office (takes) all complaints of workplace discrimination seriously — especially in cases where we have received complaints from multiple employees.”
The spokeswoman, Molly McGlynn, said that the attorney general’s “Civil Rights Division is continuing to thoroughly review all of the complaints relating to the Convention Center before determining the best path forward.”
DiZoglio also said she will look at the authority’s requirement that employees who have left the MCCA after filing claims against it be forced into signing nondisclosure agreements in order to receive any compensation.
The Globe described how a former human resources manager was forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement after settling a lawsuit she brought alleging that she was bypassed for promotions and then asked to train the people hired instead of her.
Natasha Hall was required to sign a nondisclosure 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.
Other employees said they were also required to sign NDA’s.
DiZoglio has vocally opposed the use of nondisclosure agreements since she was a state representative.
“I am committed to auditing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund NDAs that potentially silence victims of harassment, discrimination, and abuse,” she said.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.