Salt Lake City’s famously vibrant Pride Festival was quiet this month, with parades, balls and fundraisers canceled due to the pandemic. But behind the scenes of the Utah Pride Center, an uproar grows louder.

More than a dozen people have come forward sharing stories about an organization they say is plagued with questionable finances, mismanagement, lack of transparency, discrimination and dismissal. These allegations long simmered beneath the surface, but came to a head when two recent rounds of layoffs removed half the nonprofit’s staff, followed by a move to completely dissolve the center’s volunteer-based Pride Planning Committee.

Leadership at the Utah Pride Center points to a devastating reduction in revenues brought on by the pandemic as the reason for restructuring.

Those terminated, most of whom refer to the layoffs as “firings,” say the official explanation makes little sense, given that many of these employees performed key fundraising, finance and outreach roles. Instead, they believe they were retaliated against for filing complaints or raising concerns with the board and center director.

“We’re not disgruntled employees. We were subjected to inappropriate behavior and reported it, as we should,” said Michael Bryant, who worked as community development manager until June 10. “I don’t want any of it to be true, because I don’t want anything bad to happen to the center. But leadership needs to provide an answer. They can’t just fire people.”

For their part, executive leaders at the Utah Pride Center say layoffs were legal, appropriate and critical in enabling the nonprofit to weather the COVID-19 economic storm.

“The allegations and actions of certain individuals are now damaging the financial success and well-being of the center,” said Executive Director Rob Moolman. “By putting out information they know is confidential and we can’t respond to, the impact to the center is that donors and sponsors are being affected. The lifesaving work of the center is being affected.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In happier times for the Utah Pride Center, Executive Director Rob Moolman, center, cheers the raising of the pride flag over Salt Lake City Hall, May 28, 2019. Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupskie, left, applauds with Liz Pitts. To Moolman's right are bek Birkett and Hillary McDaniel. Pitts, Birkett and McDaniel all have been laid off from the center in recent weeks.
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Mona Stevens, the board chairperson, called allegations “unfounded” and in some cases “slanderous.” She asserts that the former employees aren’t acting in the best interests of the center but “trying to burn it down…. They’re trying to cause harm.”

Where it started

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed numerous former employees, dismissed volunteers and people currently working for the center in reporting this story. The newspaper also reviewed several leaked documents and audio recordings from anonymous whistleblowers.

All the current turmoil appears to have first been sparked when a top employee filed a grievance about nepotism in 2018.

In a copy of the complaint obtained by The Tribune, then-Community Engagement Director Liz Pitts wrote to Moolman that she was concerned about his plans to hire the romantic partner of the center’s operations director without posting the high-level position or interviewing other candidates.

“No people of color, people with disabilities or gender nonbinary folks had an equal opportunity to apply,” Pitts wrote, going on to say, “it seems to me that certain systematic practices and lack of policy/guidelines has brought us to a place where hiring, compensation & promotion is inequitable and potentially unethical.”

While describing herself as “passionately committed” to the center and its mission, Pitts said she was “very disillusioned and stuck.”

She added in her complaint that, “I am also afraid [of] the impact filing this grievance will have on my job.”

Although Pitts is not the person who shared the grievance with The Tribune, she verified its authenticity.

After filing her complaint, she said she sensed growing hostility.

Numerous former employees who worked under Pitts — and said she had built close relationships with sponsors and was responsible for bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants — also said they saw a change in the executive director’s behavior, something Moolman said never happened.

“Absolutely that situation did not take place as described,” he said.

He also said that he took Pitts’ nepotism complaint seriously but declined to discuss the matter in detail.

Pitts was terminated April 30 along with nine other center employees, weeks after the pandemic forced the Utah Pride Center to close.

bek Birkett had discussed concerns similar to Pitts’ with the executive director.

Birkett worked as an executive assistant to Moolman and a bookkeeper under the operations director. Soon after starting that job in the fall of 2018, Birkett noticed what they said was suspicious and potentially unethical behavior.

“My fight has been for financial transparency … that the pride center sorely lacks,” said Birkett, who uses fluid gender pronouns, including “they” and “them.”

An email to the board of directors, which Birkett confirmed they submitted to the pride center board earlier this month, raised several red flags.

The operations director, Birkett wrote, had told employees that they didn’t need to keep expense receipts, leaving “no way of tracking or itemizing” purchases.

The lack of documentation was so extensive it was impossible to conduct an audit of the center’s 2017 finances, Birkett said, warning the board, “We are going to lose more and more funding because of this.”

The operations director — hired by a former center director and given responsibilities, including financial oversight, that both former employees and current leadership agree were beyond her ability — resigned in April 2019. Birkett and others say she was forced out. Mona Stevens, the board chairperson, says she “chose to resign” — one of three options presented her, including a pay cut. The former operations director’s romantic partner, who most agree is well-qualified, remains employed at the center.

A forensic accountant was able to piece together 2017 records enough to conduct what is called a financial compilation, said Chris Jensen, the board vice chairperson, and Marci Milligan, the board secretary. The Council of Nonprofits notes that such reviews do not examine risks of fraud or embezzlement and do not test the accuracy of records.

Moolman and executive board members said that a more comprehensive formal audit is underway of the center’s 2018 finances that will be released soon.

Questions, few answers

About a month after the first layoffs at the end of April, two events ignited an even bigger controversy at the Utah Pride Center.

Pitts sent an email to pride center employees and members of the board with a subject line of “What just happened?” The May 27 memo summarized her nepotism grievance and the alleged retaliation that followed. She also included a list of 29 questions, including “Why, given the incredible growth and revenue, did [Utah Pride Center] find itself in a position in April where 10 staff were terminated?” She also alleged that employee reports of the former operation director’s “negligence, book doctoring” and potentially worse were “covered up.”

That same day, Moolman led a management meeting and announced that the pride center had received a Paycheck Protection loan through the program approved by Congress to help small businesses and organizations retain employees during the pandemic.

Funds would have covered 2½ months of wages for the center’s full staff, but in an audio recording from the meeting, Moolman is heard saying that he would not be using the loan to bring back laid-off employees. Instead, he said, those funds would be placed in a savings account and paid back.

Bryant, the community development manager, was among staffers questioning the decision to park the funds in a bank account instead of bringing back staff to help the center transition.

“We had a lot of upset families who relied on our services that were suddenly taken away from them,” Bryant told The Tribune. “It’s unethical … why accept that money in the first place?”

Moolman told The Tribune it would have been “unethical” to rehire people using the Paycheck Protection loan only to lay them off again in a few months.

Screenshots show Hillary McDaniel, director of the Utah Pride Festival and other events, sent a request to be added to the board’s June 8 meeting to discuss the issue and concerns raised in Pitts’ email. Stevens declined.

Days later, on June 10, McDaniel sent an email complaint to the center’s human resources firm. It began: “I wanted to address some concerns I have about decisions being made by our executive leadership that I do not feel are being communicated properly to the full board nor are in the best interest of our organization and our community.”

Hours later, McDaniel, Bryant and Birkett were terminated in the second round of layoffs.

“To me, it points to retaliation,” McDaniel said. “These were the people asking hard questions about financial transparency, about who was let go and why.”

Birkett had sent their email to the board outlining concerns just days before being terminated.

“I believe in the center. I believe in the mission of the center. It has saved so many lives, including lives that are near and dear to me,” Birkett said. “I also believe it’s rotten.”

Most confusing of all, many current and former employees said, was that by all accounts the Utah Pride Center had just had a banner year for revenue. And even during the pandemic, a virtual Pride Spectacular fundraiser on June 5 had exceeded goals.

“Five days later, we restructured and laid people off,” said Bryant, who uses they/them pronouns. “I think it’s unethical and inappropriate to not tell your donors that in five days we’re going to reorganize and fundamentally change this business.”

Moolman and executive members of the board maintain the terminations were entirely due to financial shortfalls, despite previous fundraising success.

“Forty-eight percent of our income comes from events. Almost all of that is from the Pride Festival,” which was canceled this year, Jensen said. “If you look at our expenses, 40% are personnel. You have to cut deep, unfortunately.”

The pride center recently posted notice that it is hiring for two new positions. One of the job listings, for an associate executive director, appears to include many of Pitts’ former responsibilities.

Regarding the Paycheck Protection loan, Jensen and Stevens said the center does not want to accumulate debt.

“Everything is changing daily with the [Paycheck Protection Program] loan,” Stevens said. “We will make sure we take smart steps that keep us financially viable, either giving all that money back, or if things change down the road with that loan to give us another opportunity, we’ll consider that. We’re not going to do something that puts us in further debt.”

Although Congress has adjusted the Paycheck Protection Program a few times, one thing remains constant — the funds become debt only if they’re not used for payroll and retaining staff. Otherwise, the loan becomes a grant that does not need to be repaid.

In response to Pitts’ May 27 allegations, Stevens provided a brief “Governance Committee Report” that reviewed points made in the email. That committee found that restructuring was done lawfully and that all conduct related to the center’s finances were ethical.

Stevens also provided a one-page summary of an investigation conducted by Stratus, a firm the center uses for human resources. Stratus said it investigated all 29 of the questions in Pitts’ email and issued a response for each to the board. Those answers were not included in the document given to The Tribune and shared on the center’s website.

“As many of the answers to these questions are proprietary, there is a need to keep them confidential,” wrote Brad Fagergren, a consultant with Stratus. “That being said … there is evidence to refute questions raised of financial impropriety.”

Stratus also cleared Moolman of misconduct.

In an interview, Pitts raised concerns about the objectivity of the reports.

Fallout

In the weeks between the first round of layoffs on April 30 and the second round on June 10, people began taking to Facebook to share anger and concerns about the center.

Connell O’Donovan wrote in a public post that he had resigned as a volunteer with the center’s Utah Queer Historical Society and returned the Lifetime Achievement Award the center gave him last year.

“People were thinking that my criticism was about people being fired and that wasn’t it at all,” O’Donovan said in an interview, acknowledging the financial constraints brought by the pandemic. “My criticism was about how they were fired, how they were treated, in particular Liz Pitts.”

Trouble then erupted on the Utah Pride Center Lobby Facebook page earlier this month.

Roberto Lopez was the center’s youth and family coordinator. He had immediately returned as a volunteer after the center laid him off in April — something other terminated employees said they would have considered, as well as pay cuts or furloughs, but the option was never presented to them.

“Once my Zoom meeting notification of termination was presented, I immediately offered my services without reimbursement,” Lopez told The Tribune in an email. “I am positive that if things were handled differently, I wouldn’t have been the only one to offer this.”

After the second round of terminations on June 10, however, and an abrupt dissolution the same day of the Utah Pride Center’s nearly 20-member Pride Days Planning Committee (on which Lopez was a volunteer), Lopez posted a demand on the lobby page that the pride center host an open forum. He also asked whether the board of directors had informed sponsors about the center’s current state.

Moolman’s Facebook account deleted the posts, removed Lopez and blocked him from the page, a screenshot shows.

“Change needs to happen, we are stronger as a community and the lifesaving programs and services that the Pride Center provides are in danger for lack of transparency, leadership and inclusivity,” Lopez said. “The voices that have cried for countless years are still being silenced and ignored and it’s time that they are heard.”

Moolman said he has since apologized to Lopez and reinstated him in the lobby group, but according to Lopez and others, this isn’t the first time people of color and other minorities have felt ignored by executives at the center.

Stevens said the board has made diversity a priority at the center. She noted that a quarter of the board of directors includes people of color (although all the people holding executive roles are white).

“It’s better than nothing, but if those people aren’t involved in the executive decision-making, then it doesn’t really matter,” said a person currently working for the center who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. “If you’re not a cis, white, gay male, there’s no space for you here.”

The misuse of pronouns by executives was a complaint voiced by at least three people who currently work or formerly worked at the center.

Numerous current and former workers also noted the executive director tends to talk over and be dismissive of women and femme-presenting people.

“He’s a big-ego man who seems to protect the interests of his male staff more and better than of his female staff,” said another person currently working for the center who requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation.

Moolman disagreed, saying he has actively hired and promoted women and femme-presenting people as well as queer people and people of color.

He pointed to two women of color, Chelsie Acosta, an activist who volunteers with the center, and Paula Espinoza, who worked for the center for about a month and has also volunteered. Both offered words of support for Moolman.

“It’s a witch hunt at this point,” Acosta said. “We’re taking out one of our own so viciously and publicly.”

Espinoza said she was surprised about Pitts’ termination, agreeing that Pitts had played an important role in raising funds for the center. But, she said, Moolman created a positive and inclusive work environment.

“He would ask, ‘How do we bring more people of color into the center? What do I need to do?’” Espinoza said. “He was willing to help us do that.”

Executive board members told The Tribune they were unaware of any allegations about Moolman and discrimination at the center.

Stevens said despite the growing number of voices raising complaints, a silent majority still backs the Utah Pride Center’s restructuring but fear speaking out because they expect to be “bullied” and verbally “attacked immediately.”

All the former employees who discussed their concerns with The Tribune said they realized they might come across as soured workers who were trying to take retaliatory measures of their own.

But, they said, that’s far from the truth.

“It really does break my heart that it’s come to this,” Birkett said. “Our lives do not matter in the greater picture. What I care about is the center still standing and performing its services in 30 years.”

Correction: June 27, 5:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct Michael Bryant's former job title.