A half-dozen prominent Massachusetts politicians said the state needs to find ways to speed up cases at the agency that investigates discrimination complaints, following a report by WBUR that found some cases take well over a decade to complete.
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz said the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination needs more money to address the delays. She recently sponsored a budget amendment to increase the MCAD's funding by nearly two-thirds, but it failed to muster enough votes.
“I feel pretty outraged," said Chang-Díaz, a Boston Democrat. “We cannot keep talking about how much we care about equity while grossly underfunding the commission that is tasked with tackling discrimination in our state."
Both Attorney General Maura Healey, who is running for governor, and all three candidates running for state auditor, promised to take a closer look at the issue if they win office. The top leaders in the Legislature also issued statements pledging to work with the commission to find solutions.
A WBUR investigation found the agency's backlog of old cases has risen five-fold since 2019 as it struggled to keep employees and finish investigations during the pandemic.
In addition, the MCAD has had longstanding complaints about its inability to resolve investigations in a timely manner. One case, involving Worcester police officers, took 27 years before it was resolved last year. And WBUR found a dozen active cases in April had been pending for more than a decade. The agency said it had made progress reducing its backlog before the pandemic.
An audit this spring by Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office concluded that nearly half of the MCAD’s cases (excluding housing complaints) missed the agency’s own 18-month deadline to reach a preliminary determination of whether a violation has occurred.
And MCAD officials recently told WBUR it now takes an average of two years just to reach that initial finding. And cases can take many years longer to fully resolve.
Both the House and Senate leadership said they are committed to finding ways to address the delays.
An aide to House Speaker Ron Mariano said in an email that the speaker "looks forward to working with the MCAD and partners in the Legislature on future appropriations."
Senate President Karen Spilka issued a similar statement, citing the desire "to ensure this crucial agency has the resources and funding it needs to clear its backlog.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, who appoints the three commissioners who oversee the independent agency, declined to comment on the delays.
Attorney General Maura Healey, the sole Democrat running to succeed Baker as governor, promised to work with the MCAD to help improve services, “including bolstering their workforce and making sure they have the resources they need to serve the people of Massachusetts.” The two Republican candidates for governor, Geoff Diehl and Chris Doughty, did not respond to requests for comment.
MCAD spokesman Michael Memmolo said in an email that the agency “continues to rebuild” in the wake of the pandemic.
“Our hope is the Legislature and governor will support the agency by fully funding the MCAD,” Memmolo said.
But all the candidates running for state auditor expressed concern about the delays, and said they will prioritize the agency if elected to be one of the top government watchdogs in the state.
"We need to follow up on this," said Anthony Amore, the sole Republican in the auditor's race.
Amore, who is also director of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said it's understandable why the investigation into the Gardner art heist could take three decades, but there's no reason a discrimination dispute should take so long.
Chris Dempsey, one of two Democrats running for auditor, said he’s committed to investigating the MCAD backlog if he wins the election.
“My office will make recommendations to create a more transparent and effective agency,” Dempsey said.
The other Democrat in the auditor's race, State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, called the backlog “unacceptable.” She said the commission lacks both the staff and resources it needs to handle complaints.
WBUR reporter Walter Wuthman contributed to this story.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.