CLEARWATER — Kristine Allard loved her job as chief operating officer at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. But she had to quit four years ago, she said, because of how afraid and unhappy she was working for its then-CEO Kirk Ray Smith.
Allard said those feelings came rushing back last week when she learned three former employees of the Clearwater nonprofit Religious Community Services are suing Smith and the organization. They claim Smith — the nonprofit’s chief executive — repeatedly made inappropriate comments and verbally abused staffers, then retaliated against them when they complained.
"It brought back so many horrible memories,’’ Allard said. “I felt a sinking pit in my stomach."
In all, six former YMCA employees told the Times the allegations in the lawsuit and discrimination complaints describe exactly the same workplace environment they endured when Smith was CEO of the YMCA between 2011 and 2015. All six plan to file affidavits in support of the three Pinellas women, who say Smith routinely demeaned and shouted at them and in some instances, touched them inappropriately.
Created in 1967 by local congregations of different faiths, Religious Community Services employs about 70 people. Its operations include a food bank, a center for women at risk of domestic abuse and a shelter for homeless families. It reported raising $7.3 million in donations and grants in the 2017 fiscal year, the latest for which records are available. A year earlier, its CEO position was advertised with a base salary of $100,000.
Officials at the nonprofit say they will vigorously contest the lawsuit, which was filed in Pinellas County court by Suzanne Ruley, Lisa Matzner and Erica Wiedemann. Ruley and Wiedemann claimed they were fired after they brought their complaints about Smith directly to the nonprofit's governing board.
Religious Community Services spokeswoman Lauren Misa did not return repeated calls and emails seeking comment from Smith and the organization on the allegations from former YMCA employees. Board Chairman David Siracusa said in an email that all questions must be directed to Amy Drushal, the non-profit’s attorney.
Drushal declined to answer specific questions, saying she can’t comment on pending litigation. In a motion asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, Drushal stated that Ruley and Wiedemann were fired for poor performance.
Five of the six former YMCA employees said they regretted not making formal complaints against Smith for the way they were treated in Springfield. That included former executive assistants Caitlin Maloney and Deleney Magoffin.
Magoffin, who was later promoted to chief of staff, said it was common for Smith to scream at employees about their failings in front of their peers. He had staffers pick up his children from school and drive them home, she said.
Almost every day, he would comment on the clothes worn by female employees. When they wore dressier outfits with heels, he would make comments that they had dressed up for him, she said. When one co-worker wore a dress with a front zipper, Smith asked her if that was for easy access, Magoffin said.
She said Smith frequently would touch her on the forearm when he sat next to her at meetings or come up behind her and let his hands linger on her shoulders.
After she became pregnant, Smith announced at a board meeting that she was expecting when Magoffin still hadn’t informed her extended family.
“He would call the baby in my belly ‘Kirk Jr.,’ ’’ she said. “He said the baby would recognize his voice before my husband’s.”
Robin Olejarz worked as chief financial officer for the YMCA between 2004 and 2011. She said the high staff turnover that occurred at Religious Community Services also happened under Smith's leadership at the YMCA, where virtually the entire leadership team ended up finding other jobs because of what she calls a toxic workplace environment.
Smith told one executive director who was going through a divorce that she should "keep her legs closed," Olejarz said.
"We didn’t come forward because we didn't want the Y to be dragged through the mud," she said. "We hoped the board would act sooner and get rid of him."
Smith left the YMCA abruptly in May 2015. His resignation letter to board members included a complaint that he endured a “number of racially charged attacks, character assassinations and the undermining of my authority,” according to a report in The Republican newspaper.
Allard, who as chief operating officer was essentially Smith's No. 2, said Smith told her she would never get his job because he had made it a "black man's job." She said she sometimes got text messages from Smith when she was at church on Sunday furious that she hadn't taken his call.
Katie Weiss worked for the YMCA as executive officer associate and program director for five years through 2015. She said Smith liked to pit employees against one another and when a staffer was leaving he would tell the others never to speak with them again, she said. He told staff he was the face of the organization and it was their job to protect him.
Numerous times he would stand uncomfortably close to her and put his hands on her shoulders, she said.
"Seeing just the way that everybody was treated altogether was awful," she said. "I went home crying a lot."