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Top cannabis regulator suspended after she allegedly made racist remarks, which she denies

Court filings detail publicly for the first time why Shannon O’Brien was suspended. O’Brien says none of the accusations have “any merit.”

Shannon O'Brien pictured in 2017.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

An outside investigator reported in September that the state’s top cannabis regulator, Shannon O’Brien, made a series of racist and “culturally insensitive” remarks, including referring to Asian people as “yellow,” while sowing turmoil within the agency she was appointed to lead — revelations that prompted Treasurer Deborah Goldberg to suspend O’Brien days later, new records show.

The allegations, which Goldberg included in an October letter to O’Brien, detail the reasons behind Goldberg’s abrupt decision to suspend O’Brien, with pay, as chair of the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, a move that kicked off a months-long political saga. The accusations haven’t previously been released.

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Goldberg’s letter is now public because O’Brien herself included it in documents submitted Friday in Suffolk Superior Court, along with a lengthy response from O’Brien denying the allegations.

O’Brien is asking a judge to postpone an administrative hearing scheduled for Tuesday in which O’Brien was expected to challenge her suspension, arguing that the private meeting organized by the treasurer’s office lacks the “most basic of fair procedures.” O’Brien first sued Goldberg in September over her suspension.

O’Brien’s attorneys said none of the accusations against her have “any merit.”

In the court filing, O’Brien, a former state treasurer and one-time Democratic nominee for governor, said her reputation and career are at stake, and it should not be left to a process in which Goldberg serves as the “prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner,” as O’Brien’s attorney Max D. Stern put it in an interview.

“Under the circumstances the only likely outcome, unless relief is granted by this Court, is that [O’Brien] will not only lose her job, but will go down in history as the former Treasurer and Commissioner who was fired for making racist statements. And she will probably never work again,” O’Brien’s attorneys wrote in seeking a restraining order to postpone the hearing.

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A judge will hear O’Brien’s request on Monday, according to Stern.

O’Brien, in a statement to the Globe, said Goldberg is attempting to make her “the latest casualty of the dysfunction in the Cannabis Control Commission.”

“After a long career in public service, I deserve a legitimate opportunity and not a sham process, to defend my good name and reputation, which has been unfairly maligned by the actions to date by Treasurer Goldberg,” she said.

Andrew Napolitano, a Goldberg spokesperson, said in a statement Friday that it is in “the best interest of the taxpayers and the CCC” for Tuesday’s meeting to proceed as scheduled.

“In October, Chair O’Brien was so adamant about having this meeting that she went to court to demand it,” Napolitano said. “Now, despite knowing about the allegations since September, she is asking to delay the meeting again.”

Goldberg for months has declined to fully detail why she suspended O’Brien, a former political ally whom she appointed in 2022 to a five-year term as the cannabis commission’s chair. Goldberg has only said that other commissioners and staff made “several serious allegations” about O’Brien’s behavior, prompting officials to hire outside investigators to probe the complaints.

Goldberg, the Cannabis Control Commission, and other entities, including Governor Maura Healey’s office, have so far declined to release the outside investigator’s findings.

O’Brien did not include the actual report in her court filings, but she did attach the five-page letter Goldberg sent her in October detailing the basis for her suspension, including a conclusion that she made a series of “racially, ethnically, [and] culturally insensitive statements.”

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In one instance, Goldberg wrote, O’Brien made reference to “a person of Asian heritage” during a fall 2022 meeting, saying, “I guess you’re not allowed to say ‘yellow’ anymore.” O’Brien did not deny making the statement, according to the letter, though a spokesperson for her said later Friday that she refutes using the exact phrase.

“I should have cleaned it up,” O’Brien reportedly told investigators. “It’s difficult sometimes to know how to say the right thing.”

O’Brien’s attorneys wrote in court filings Friday that the investigator’s conclusion lacked context. O’Brien said she was repeating a conversation she had with an unidentified “well-known and respected African-American real estate developer,” who said a particular project would affect “black, brown and yellow people.” O’Brien admitted repeating what he said, but acknowledged she should not have used the exact words.

“There was no pernicious bias or intent on the part of either one,” O’Brien’s attorneys wrote.

O’Brien said she faced other allegations, including from one of her fellow commissioners, Nurys Camargo. In the filings, O’Brien accused Camargo of having “recruited” staff to make anonymous complaints against her.

Camargo, who is of Dominican Colombian descent, told investigators that O’Brien once commented that she personally didn’t know state Senator Lydia Edwards, who is Black, but told Camargo that “you probably know her.”

Camargo inferred that O’Brien only made the comment because both women are people of color and that O’Brien “assum[es] all people of color know one another,” according to O’Brien’s court filing. O’Brien contends that that’s not the case.

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“Senator Edwards and Commissioner Camargo are both women of color who are government officials in the Boston area,” her attorneys wrote. “There is nothing that is racially insensitive about thinking that they might know each other politically and professionally.”

State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg speaks to delegates during the 2019 Massachusetts Democratic Party Convention.Jessica Hill/FR125654 AP via AP

Goldberg cited other reasons in her letter for suspending O’Brien. She cited a public incident in July, in which O’Brien surprised her fellow commissioners when she announced that the commission’s executive director, Shawn Collins, was planning to leave the agency. O’Brien also described the commission as being “in crisis.”

O’Brien later apologized for “any confusion I created.” Collins, the only executive director the commission has ever had, said last month he will, in fact, leave the agency after completing parental leave.

Goldberg said Collins, who used to work in her office, also accused O’Brien of criticizing him to other staff, arguing he was “‘MIA’ and unavailable” while on parental leave. “Such disparaging comments could be deemed part of a larger effort to retaliate against him for taking leave to which he is legally entitled,” Goldberg wrote.

O’Brien and Collins clashed often, and complaints he made against her sparked a second investigation into her, according to O’Brien’s court filings.

Goldberg said staff reported other concerns about O’Brien’s behavior, which included subjecting her executive assistant to “distressing yelling episodes.”

“In addition, the report [from the outside investigator] described your conduct as ‘causing turmoil internally’ and ‘creating a challenging environment in which to foster cohesion within the agency,’” Goldberg wrote.

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O’Brien criticized the investigator’s findings, arguing they were filled with error and “improper conclusions.” She also contends that none of the people she suggested the investigator speak to were interviewed, and that Goldberg “blocked” a state treasury employee from participating who, she said, had “exculpatory information that would support me.”

O’Brien’s attorneys said that the investigator who compiled the report on O’Brien would not be present at Tuesday’s scheduled hearing with Goldberg, robbing O’Brien of a chance to question the investigator about her conclusions — which, O’Brien said, were based almost entirely on anonymous witnesses.

Stern, one of O’Brien’s lawyers, said she also wants the opportunity to question the witnesses themselves. Determining whether the accusations are true, her attorneys argued in court filings, depends on being able to assess a “witness’ credibility, accuracy, memory, and ability to interpret what is said and what is meant.”

Goldberg also rejected several other requests O’Brien had for the meeting, which was originally scheduled for November before being moved to next week, her attorney said. Goldberg’s office then provided O’Brien with the protocol for the hearing just days before Thanksgiving, giving her and her attorneys little time to prepare, they said.

“There are a set of poisonous allegations, which are completely without merit,” Stern said in an interview. “But what is being proposed is a sham. It purports to be a hearing but in fact it’s going to be something done in private, in secret, and is basically going to be before someone . . . who has personally already decided the issue.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.