Top MARTA officials, including General Manager Jeffrey Parker and board Chairwoman Freda Hardage, declined to comment on the firing of CFO Gordon Hutchinson. Records obtained by the AJC, however, suggest Hutchinson’s allegedly antagonistic management style factored into his departure. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After discounting harassment claims for years, MARTA fires its CFO

Gordon Hutchinson was known as a star player among MARTA’s upper management, overseeing the transit agency’s dramatic resurgence from the red into the black during his time as its chief financial officer.

But within the finance department, some of his subordinates knew him as a bully, accusing him of frequent tirades that created unbearable working conditions, internal documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. Two female employees also formally complained that he made degrading sexual comments about their clothing, hair and body shape.

“I was violated by this man, and no one stepped in to help,” one of them told the AJC.

MARTA’s former Chief Financial Officer Gordon Hutchinson, seen here in a MARTA file photo, won accolades for his role in the agency’s financial resurgence. Meanwhile, he faced allegations of bullying and sexual harassment from female subordinates. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Twice, outside experts warned that Hutchinson represented a legal liability. Still, MARTA never disciplined him.

Then in early October, General Manager and CEO Jeffrey Parker quietly announced to his executive management team that “Gordon Hutchinson’s employment with MARTA has ended.” MARTA’s chief of staff confirmed in a statement last week that Parker fired Hutchinson “after it was determined his continued employment was not in the best interest of MARTA.”

The agency’s handling of repeated complaints against the CFO raises questions about MARTA’s ability to protect a 5,000-plus workforce from on-the-job harassment and to protect taxpayers from potential costly litigation.

MARTA dismissed both sexual harassment complaints, saying there were no eyewitnesses so the reports could not be substantiated. MARTA would not explain why Hutchinson remained in his position despite the outside experts’ warnings and what was seen as rampant dysfunction in the finance department.

Patricia Wise, who served on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s task force on workplace harassment, said employers can show extraordinary deference to “superstar” employees, such as a company’s top salesman or a hospital’s renowned surgeon. After reviewing the case files on the harassment complaints for the AJC, she said Hutchinson may fit in that category.

“Clearly he had significant management issues, and that’s the best you could say about him,” Wise, an Ohio employment attorney, said. “And yet it didn’t seem to affect his career.”

From a star to a liability

Hutchinson, who earned $266,500 per year with MARTA, is now ironing out terms of a severance package. The negotiations are based on his 2013 offer letter, which said he could be terminated any time for any reason, but “by mutual agreement, upon such terms and conditions as may be agreed to in writing by MARTA and you.”

Messages to him were returned by his attorney, Matt Maguire, who said he could not comment on his client’s departure or the past allegations while negotiations are ongoing.

MARTA officials, including CEO Parker and board Chairwoman Freda Hardage, were similarly guarded, declining to discuss the termination or the agency’s response to prior red flags. However, the chief of staff, Melissa Mullinax, pointed reporters to a passage in an investigative report into the most recent sexual harassment complaint:

“We note that Hutchinson presents a risk to the Authority,” the report, dated November 2018, said, “given his direct and confrontational management style, the fact that multiple witnesses reported Hutchinson’s tendency to resort to yelling, a track record of complaints against him, and that Hutchinson has undergone executive coaching without apparent changes in his behavior.”

Hutchinson went to work for MARTA in 2013 after spending two years as acting CFO and controller of Amtrak. During his recruitment, an executive search firm’s report to MARTA noted such strengths as “highly respected by his staff” and “has the ability to instill confidence in his team.”

At the time, MARTA was bleeding red ink and had endured years of service cuts and fare hikes. General Manager/CEO Keith Parker, who had arrived in December 2012, tapped Hutchinson to help lead a financial revival.

Through a combination of cost controls and increased tax revenue in the wake of the Great Recession, the agency was soon expanding service again, and its reserves grew to hundreds of millions of dollars.

When former Chief Financial Officer Gordon Hutchinson went to work for MARTA in early 2013, the agency was bleeding red ink and had endured years of service cuts and fare hikes. Within a few years, the agency was expanding service again with hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That turnaround set the stage for subsequent MARTA expansion votes in Clayton County and Atlanta. And it helped thaw relations with a General Assembly long hostile to mass transit — especially MARTA. Last year lawmakers approved legislation that could pave the way for transit expansion across the region.

While Keith Parker received much of the credit, Hutchinson also won applause. In 2016, Parker nominated him for a CFO of the Year award.

Meanwhile, personnel complaints flew back and forth between various managers and employees within the finance department, alleging bullying, unprofessionalism and policy violations. A contracts specialist who resigned had alleged Hutchinson bullied her and threatened her job, internal records show.

In late 2016, another female employee quit and accused Hutchinson of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment based on her race. The former contracts manager told the AJC that her boss’ verbal lashings caused her to go on medical leave for anxiety and depression.

“He would bring us into a room and scream at us,” she said. “This was an awful period in my life.”

On one occasion, the woman reported, Hutchinson asked if she wore a cap in the shower and if her hair got curly when wet. Hutchinson denied saying that, investigative records show, though he acknowledged complimenting her and other women’s hair.

The manager also alleged that during a Christmas luncheon, Hutchinson brought up a book about Thomas Jefferson’s sexual relationships with African American women, which she didn’t think was appropriate given that he’s white and many of his subordinates were black. Hutchinson admitted to making the comments, the records show, but said he was only referencing a piece of history.

With Hutchinson denying the accusations and having no prior history of sexual harassment, MARTA labeled the woman’s complaints “no cause.”

However, Parker decided to bring in an outside consultant “to work with Mr. Hutchinson on management style,” according to MARTA. (Contacted by the AJC, Parker would not talk about Hutchinson and referred questions back to the agency.)

Former MARTA CEO Keith Parker, seen here giving a speech in 2015, hired CFO Gordon Hutchinson to help lead a financial revival of the agency. After Hutchinson faced complaints of bullying and harassing his subordinates, Parker brought in an outside consultant to work with him on his management style. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A 2017 report from the that consultant, New York-based Inclusion Strategy Solutions, warned that Hutchinson “presents a considerable risk to MARTA due to limited self-awareness, a very defensive demeanor, a lack of clear accountability for delegation, and a lack of respect for the majority of the employees under his jurisdiction.”

Notes of his interviews with the consulting firm quote him as blaming “false claims” on people who didn’t want to work. Asked about the woman who filed the harassment complaint, Hutchinson was quoted saying, “She’s gone. The problem is solved. People file complaints and they leave. Good riddance!”

Records show the CFO participated in executive coaching and, by mid-2017, displayed signs of improvement. He received good feedback from eight of his own staffers in an emotional and social competency report.

A few months later, Hutchinson’s champion exited the picture. Keith Parker become president and CEO of Goodwill of North Georgia, and in March 2018 MARTA hired Jeffrey Parker, no relation, as his replacement.

‘You changed your hair’

Soon Hutchinson faced another sexual and race-based harassment complaint, this time from one of his program supervisors. She said in her complaint that she had been on Hutchinson’s good side until he falsely accused her of being in a relationship with a high-ranking city of Atlanta official and passing along sensitive information during “pillow talk conversations.”

She also complained that during a one-on-one meeting in 2017, Hutchinson had told her, “You changed your hair. You’re looking extra Afro-licious.” In later incidents, she said, he commented on her waist size, said she knew “how to dress for her shape,” and invited her to go bike riding with him. Then once he berated her so badly, she said she found herself under her desk crying.

“It was hell,” she told the AJC. “Every day I was crying going to work. My hair was falling out. My nails got brittle. I was depressed.”

Former MARTA Chief Financial Officer Gordon Hutchinson, seen here in a MARTA file photo, stated in 2017 that he hadn’t participated in any sexual harassment prevention training since going to work for the agency, according to a report by an outside consultant. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

MARTA brought in an outside employment attorney to investigate, Janine Willis of Mozley, Finlayson & Loggins.

Hutchinson denied the claims, though he again acknowledged complimenting the woman’s hair.

The woman provided names of witnesses to some incidents. Under questioning, they didn’t back up her accounts of comments and situations, or they said they didn’t think their boss had been out of line, the investigative report said.

While ruling the woman’s claims unsubstantiated, the outside attorney nevertheless acknowledged similarities to the earlier complaint.

“Although neither (woman’s) claims could be corroborated,” the report said, “we find that there are now two reports of comments allegedly made by Hutchinson which could be deemed offensive and, if true, reflect at least a lack of sensitivity to issues of race in the workplace.”

Both women who came forward saw their careers at MARTA derailed.

In response to the 2016 complaint, one of Hutchinson’s upper managers produced documents portraying the woman as on the verge of being fired, having cost MARTA tens of thousands of dollars by mismanaging contracts. But Inclusion Strategy would later cast doubt on how “a managerial employee who was seemingly performing well enough to merit a promotion and salary increase … suddenly was unable to meet the requirements of her position.”

When Hutchinson spoke to the outside attorney about the second accuser, he described her as “difficult” and said she faced termination over attitude problems and conflicts with co-workers, the report says. Four months after the CFO was cleared of sexual harassment, MARTA fired the woman over performance issues.

Hutchinson was recommended to undergo race- and gender-sensitivity training.

Wise, the employment attorney, said the investigators appear to have overlooked common threads in the two cases that should have given the women credibility.

“For sure at that point, you’ve got to have some kind of discipline,” Wise said. “Training isn’t discipline.”

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