Harassment claims in suit, internal complaints put future of Visit KC chief in doubt

Ronnie Burt, president and CEO of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association.
Ronnie Burt, president and CEO of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association. Special to the Star

Ronnie Burt’s future as chief executive of Kansas City’s tourism and convention bureau is in doubt as he faces employee complaints and accusations in a lawsuit that he harassed female workers.

The lawsuit, filed by Visit KC’s former human resources manager Janette Barron, claims she was fired after she requested an investigation into multiple complaints of Burt’s alleged harrassing and bullying behavior.

Burt wrote in a letter to Visit KC board members this week that his authority as chief executive had been curtailed earlier in the year and that on Nov. 1, the chairman of the organization, Kevin Pistilli, had asked him to resign.

In the letter, obtained by The Star, Burt references the Barron lawsuit and claims that three unnamed employees of the organization have been “working in concert to discredit me both professionally and personally.”

“I am not sure that you are aware of this and it is my belief that you may have been intentionally kept unaware about it,” Burt’s letter said of Pistilli’s resignation request.

“However, to the extent that no successor CEO has been chosen, and as our organization already faces internal threats from employees who are ready, willing, and have directly refused to follow CEO direction, I am concerned for the safety and future of Visit KC — especially considering that my contract is nearing its end, unless you allow it to renew automatically.”

The Visit KC executive committee is holding a closed meeting Friday afternoon to discuss the issues in Burt’s letter.

Burt, reached by phone on Thursday afternoon, declined to talk about the letter.

“Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss that with you,” Burt said.

A Visit KC spokeswoman said the organization could not comment because the matter involves legal and personnel issues. Pistilli, owner of the Raphael Hotel Group, did not return a message seeking comment.

But in an email to the board on Thursday evening, Pistilli cast doubt on some of Burt’s claims.

“While some of the statements in Ronnie’s letter are accurate, other are inaccurate either in whole or in part, and fail to provide relevant facts, context and the full picture,” Pistilli wrote in the email, obtained by The Star.

“Because many of the topics raised by Ronnie concern confidential, personnel matters and involve Visit KC employees, we are not at liberty to discuss these matters in any detail in this communication.”

Pistilli’s email continues:

“We can, however, confirm that employees of Visit KC have submitted formal complaints about Ronnie and that these have been investigated and are being handled in an appropriate manner, keeping in mind the best interests of the organization and the confidential nature of personnel matters.”

Burt’s letter claims that efforts by Visit KC employees to discredit him stem from his “management style where I hold employees accountable to goals and challenge improvement,” as well as the Barron lawsuit.

Barron, the former Visit KC human resources manager, worked for Visit KC, which had previously been known as the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City, from 1996 until she was fired in March 2017.

Burt was hired as CEO in June 2014.

Barron’s lawsuit, filed on Aug. 25, 2017, said that Barron had received complaints from multiple employees about “Burt’s harassment, bullying and retaliation of female employees.”

According to the lawsuit, on Oct. 25, 2016, Barron, on the advice of Visit KC’s lawyers, visited Pistilli about Burt and requested an investigation into the complaints.

Barron told Pistilli that Burt had told a female employee at Visit KC that he “took a big risk hiring her knowing she was a single mom,” according to Barron’s lawsuit.

The suit says that Barron followed up with similar requests for an investigation.

Burt, according to the lawsuit, told Barron on Feb. 3 that “he knew what she had done and who she had spoken to about it.”

Barron was later placed on administrative leave for two weeks following a human resources and payroll assessment and was fired when she returned on March 14.

The lawsuit alleges violations of the Missouri Human Rights Act for retaliation and wrongful termination.

Burt and Visit KC have not filed an answer, or a formal response to Barron’s accusations, having twice requested extensions from Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Campbell. Both sides were scheduled for a Dec. 7 mediation session, according to court filings.

Barron, a Pleasant Valley resident, said Thursday evening she could not comment on the lawsuit. Her attorney, Lauren Allen, could not be reached for comment.

In becoming chief executive of the tourism and convention organization in 2014, Burt took over for longtime leader Rick Hughes. Burt had a long history in the tourism and hospitality industry, coming to Kansas City from a vice president of sales position at Destination DC, which promotes tourism and convention business in Washington D.C.

Burt made a $250,000 base salary in 2015, the most recent year in which the nonprofit organization filed its tax return. His total compensation for that year was $383,775 when accounting for bonuses, incentives, benefits and deferred compensation.

He championed the city’s cause for a new downtown convention hotel, which was announced publicly in May 2015.

Burt’s letter to the Visit KC board came after the organization’s Dec. 12 board meeting.

“As reflected at our December 12th board meeting, I am happy that my tenure serving as your CEO has been marked by tremendous accomplishments and gains,” he wrote.

But his letter said that after employees took their grievances to Pistilli, he was ordered to put a hold on hiring decisions and an internal reporting structure was changed “so that I no longer have the full team directly reporting to me.”

Burt claimed in his letter that Visit KC’s bylaws don’t grant Pistilli that kind of authority.

It’s not clear what happened after Pistilli asked Burt to resign on Nov. 1, but Burt’s letter said that on Nov. 9, he was told to “behave professionally...and be careful about [my] actions...and do not do anything that would appear retaliatory.”

“I have even been asked to desist from a recreational cycling club that I enjoy participating in on the weekends,” Burt wrote.

Pistilli’s email to the board said that after Friday’s Visit KC executive committee meeting, a full board meeting would be called after the holiday break “to provide a report and recommendations regarding next steps.”

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt