Democrats call for investigation
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Democrats call for investigation

Date: February 27, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's State Treasurer has stopped payment on the check the Agriculture Department had issued in an effort to settle a sexual harassment complaint against the department's former director.

In a late Tuesday afternoon statement, Sarah Steelman strongly criticized the financial mechanism the department had used in its effort to keep the issue quite.

"This system, in this case, has allowed the director of a department accused of sexual harassment to authorize payment of tax dollars to the victim in a secret agreement with no transparency to the taxpayers," Steelman said.  "This is just wrong."

Steelman also said she also had filed "sunshine" requests for all documents related to the settlement check. 

Steelman's statement was the first public criticism of the administration's action by a Republican.  She is the only Republican woman to hold statewide office and occasionally has been mentioned as a possible primary opponent to Gov. Matt Blunt in 2008.

In her statement, the State Treasurer criticized a decision by the administration to let the Agriculture Department, rather than the Office of Administration, certify that department expenditures are property.  That, she charged, eliminates "all checks and balances on their spending."

For the second day in a row, the office of Missouri's governor refused to comment on Democratic legislative charges surrounding the forced resignation  the Agriculture Department director Monday and the governor's actions after allegations of sexual harassment arose within the Department.

Following the resignation of the director, Democrats from the House and Senate held a press conference Tuesday morning demanding an explanation from the governor's office and called for action from the legislature.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said the sexual harassment allegations, and the governor's actions once the allegations surfaced, represent a "culture of corruption" that exists in Missouri state government. She and other Democrats have called for the House and Senate to take immediate action because as litigators they are a balance for the executive branch.    

"If you read the full report you'll see it was not one bad act at one time," Justus said. Sen. Joan Bray D-St. Louis agreed and said "if you read the Highway Patrol report, you see other women were discriminated in the department."

The Missouri State Highway Patrol conducted an investigation in May 2006 after the allegations were made by the department director's secretary, Heather Elder. In the report released by the Highway Patrol, Elder stated that Ferrell humiliated her sexually in front of other employees and used the promise of a higher position to touch and demean her and to continue making inappropriate comments.

"I was absolutely in fear of losing my job... and therefore felt completely unable to defend myself," Elder stated in the report.

According to Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, the governor illegally used the Highway Patrol to conduct the investigation in an attempt to cover-up the incident and keep it from the public.

Graham said that current state law does not allow the governor to utilize the Highway Patrol to conduct investigations.

Graham called the secrecy of the situation "the most bungled up Republican cover up since Watergate."

A bill currently in the House would change the law by allowing the governor to use the Highway Patrol in order to investigate gubernatorial appointees. Any information from these investigations would be confidential and disclosed only to the governor's office.

Democrats questioned the governor's motivations for reinstating Ferrell after reading the Highway Patrol's report. Ferrell turned in his resignation Monday at the Governor's request but some Democrats said they felt that was too late. At the press conference Tuesday many of the Democrats in attendance said the governor needs to explain why the allegations were kept secret for nine months.

"If I was governor six months ago, I would have fired him on the spot," Graham said.

House Democratic Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, agreed and said the governor should fired Ferrell.

"It contains allegations that are appalling," Harris said. "Imagine this person, who is a victim of harassment, imagine that was somebodies wife, that this was your wife, your daughter, your sister, your mother, you wouldn't want that person to go through this kind of conduct."

The report was leaked last week when the Department of Agriculture filed a civil suit against Elder.

Senate Pro-Tem Mike Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, said he would not speculate about Ferrell's resignation or the governor's actions.

"I think you've got enough lawyers and litigators around, we'll get the truth out," Gibbons said. "I think the main thing is you want jobs in state government and any where that are safe and free from harassment."

Despite the Democrat's urging, House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said right now the issue is a personnel matter and the legislature should not get involved. 

The governor's office did not return several phone calls for comment.