Agriculture director resigns after law suit is brought to light
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Agriculture director resigns after law suit is brought to light

Date: February 26, 2007
By: Tina Marie Macias and Sean Sposito
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A top government official was forced out of office Monday after the publication of a nine-month-old report of sexual harassment surfaced last week.

Fred Ferrell, director of the Department of Agriculture, reportedly asked his secretary to participate in a "wet t-shirt contest," according to a 40-page report on an investigation that was conducted in May by the Missouri Highway Patrol. The report described the actions of Ferrell against 36-year-old Heather Elder, a former executive assistant to the state veterinarian.

Gov. Blunt kept Ferrell to his position in May after he was required to give an apology, go through sensitivity training and pay a fine, Blunt said in a news release Monday.

"Prior to this week, it was the general belief that the issues involving the Missouri agriculture director were being resolved in a manner consistent with the goals of all parties involved with these very disappointing events," Blunt said in the release. "It has now become apparent that he can no longer lead the department effectively and I have today asked for and accepted his resignation."

Blunt's office declined any further comment.

But Senate Democratic Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, suggested that the governor himself could use some sensitivity training.

"Sensitivity training, I think, is needed all the way around, and I am very concerned that the behavior that this man [Ferrell] showed was not dealt with in a better manner," Coleman said.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday that after Ferrell returned to office, Elder was offered $70,000 to sign confidentiality agreement, with paid vacation time and $12,000 in attorney fees. As a condition of the settlement, she was also aked to resign.

House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he was "appalled" to learn that Blunt did not remove 66-year-old Ferrell nine months ago.

At that point, the governor appointed the state Highway Patrol to conduct an investigation about the accusation.

"I'm just very surprised that the governor didn't use better judgment, that he would reinstate this man after the governor read this report," Harris said. "He should have been gone a long time ago."

In the report, Elder is quoted as saying that "not only did Director Ferrell humiliate me sexually in front of two members of his management team, he also used his position and the promise of a promotion to continuously touch me, demean me and make inappropriate remarks to me," she added that, "I was absolutely in fear of loosing my job--an unclassified and highly political state job."

Elder was hired in Sept. 5, 2005, by Dr. Shane Brookshire, the state veterinarian and director of the Division of Animal Health, and and Operations Manager Ray Wadley. Elder was quoted in the report as saying that she didn't feel threatened by Ferrell until November 2005, three months after she was hired.  

"He began to refer to me as 'his beautiful girl,' 'his beautiful princess,' 'the light in his day.' He began coming into my cubicle, while I was sitting in my chair, to place his cheek on my cheek," Elder stated in the report.

In the report Ferrell confirmed that he called Elder, other co-workers and his wife "show dogs."

According to the report, in an interview conducted by Lt. L Vislay of the Missouri Highway Patrol,  "(Ferrell) conveyed a story how the term was used by his grandfather when he was younger."

Sen. Joan Bray, D- St. Louis County, co-authored a letter of disapproval to Gov. Matt Blunt's office about the incident along with six Democratic female legislators. Bray said that she was "dismayed (and) disappointed" by the goings on of the last nine months.

"There is a fund to pay settlements out of and it wasn't paid out of that, and there was a real effort to cover it up," Bray said.  

She said Elder's situation was a "difficult one," and those who are sexually harassed do not normally come forward unless under "extreme conditions."

Currently there is no statewide sexual harassment policy. Sexual misconduct policies are determined by department, according to the Missouri Office of Administration. 

John Fougere, press secretary for the attorney general's office, said the attorney aeneral wasn't involved in any investigation regarding the situation.

"It is troubling the Department of Agriculture would attempt to secretly spend up to $82,000 to keep this matter quiet," he said.

Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles County, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee at first shrugged his shoulders when asked how the department could fund the settlement. Later he said that departments have extra money in their budgets for any unexpected expenses.

"Departments have some flexibility, we give them a certain amount, but it varies year to year on how much flexibility there is," Gross said. "So within that flexibility they could spend that money, as long as it's not outside the authority."

Gross said departments can have between 10 and 20 percent excess of their budget. For Fiscal Year 2007, the Department of Agriculture were appropriated $42.7 million.

Bray added that in the mid-90s -- under a then Democrat-lead legislature -- she and her colleagues tried to institute a sexual harassment policy in the Capitol.

"Even then we couldn't get it done," she said.  

However Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said she supports Blunt in how he's handled the situation.

"I work in a world of men. All the women here do. I'm obviously a minority. When a colleague of mine hugs me, I take that as a sign of support, of encouragement. I could see where someone else would take it the other way, so this comes at a very difficult definition," Cunningham said. "I think sometimes women need to grow up, too, and really understand and appreciate what encouragement can mean and recognize that. Now, do I realize it can be otherwise? Of course I do."

Harris said he would never hug a colleague, and as a man, it is important to know the lines between sexual harassment.

Missourian reporter Matt Tilden contributed to this report.