Ex-employees sue Utah Pride Center, alleging discrimination, retaliation

Five former workers, laid off at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, assert they were terminated for blowing the whistle on questionable management.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Mayor Jackie Biskupski, left, is joined by Rob Moolman, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, in this file photo. Former employees Liz Pitts, Bek Birkett and Hillary McDaniel, from left, are among five people filing a lawsuit against the center, alleging discrimination and wrongful termination.

The turmoil that shook the Utah Pride Center last year has now resulted in a lawsuit.

Five former employees of the center filed a complaint Friday in 3rd District Court, alleging they were wrongfully terminated at the height of the coronavirus pandemic after raising concerns about nepotism, ethics, mismanagement and financial malfeasance.

The workers’ complaints were previously outlined in a story by The Salt Lake Tribune published last year.

The lawsuit accuses the center’s directors of breach of contract, retaliation and discrimination.

“We deeply believe in the mission of the Utah Pride Center, and the critical lifesaving services it provides,” Brim Wachendorf, a plaintiff and former center employee, said in a statement. “We are taking action to ensure the longevity and well-being of the center, so [its] mission can continue.”

The center released a statement Friday afternoon, noting that many of the suit’s allegations had been previously investigated by third parties and did not find any discrimination or impropriety had occurred.

“In conclusion,” the statement said, “the Utah Pride Center, the board of directors, and the executive director of the Utah Pride Center remain committed to being open, honest, transparent, and accountable for all of the actions taken. As shown by our work, our events, and our team, we will continue to ensure that our LGBTQ+ community in Utah are cared for, are seen, and receive the lifesaving services we have offered for almost 30 years.”

Hillary McDaniel, another plaintiff, called on the community to mobilize and create change at the center.

“We are convinced,” McDaniel wrote in a statement posted to Facebook, “that the current leadership ... are not able [to] advance [the center’s] mission because of their refusal to critically look at and change organizational practices and policies which uphold oppressive systems including but not limited to misogyny, ableism, and racism.”

More than a dozen current and former center employees and volunteers came forward with similar complaints of mismanagement and discrimination last year. Leaked audio and emails reviewed by The Tribune appeared to confirm some of their accounts.

Starting in 2018, at least one employee raised concerns about nepotism and discrimination with the center’s executive director, Rob Moolman, and others began asking questions about suspicious and potentially unethical behavior involving the center’s operations director.

In April 2020, amid shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, 10 employees were terminated, including some of those who came forward with complaints. Those ex-employees allege it was retaliation, but center leadership has said the move was due to financial constraints.

The center received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program weeks later, and other employees asked why their laid-off colleagues were not reinstated with the funds. Moolman said the center intended to bank the PPP dollars and repay them to the federal government instead. After protesting, some of those workers were also terminated in June 2020, again ostensibly due to budget issues.

Moolman announced in April that he would step down after the center’s board finds a new executive director.

“Through 2020, we faced the challenges that came with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moolman wrote in a statement on the center’s website announcing his resignation. “We saw our funding decrease dramatically, and we saw baseless and cruel attacks on our work and team by ex-employees with personal agendas who actively strove to divide us, our donors, and our community relationships.”

The Utah Pride Center boss later deleted his reference to “ex-employees” and “cruel attacks.”

In the center’s statement Friday, the board indicated it stands by its current staff and executive director.