Blunt blames Attorney General
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Blunt blames Attorney General

Date: February 28, 2007
By: Tina Marie Macias, Matt Tilden and Sean Sposito
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Just hours after Gov. Matt Blunt defended his decision to retain a top official accused of sexual harassment, two female statewide officials questioned the governor's actions concerning the former Agriculture Department director and the proposed settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The sexual harassment settlement would have been paid to former Agriculture Department employee Heather Elder out of the department's budget rather than the state's fund used to cover lawsuit awards against state employees. In light of that, State Auditor Susan Montee, a Democrat, said she will audit the Agriculture Department at the end of the fiscal year in June.

"We just know there's something about the way this transaction was being handled that feels improper and looks improper," she said.

At question is the administration's proposal to use Agriculture Department funds to pay for a settlement agreement that would require the woman making the complaint to keep remain silent about the matter.

Although most of the public outcry regarding the investigation has come from female Democrats, Republican State Treasurer Sarah Steelman Tuesday criticized Blunt for delaying the removal of the department director for nine months after a Highway Patrol investigation into the allegations.

"I'm upset that a director would get away with saying those things and have that attitude towards women and not be released at the time it was known," Steelman said.

On Tuesday, Steelman announced she had stopped payment on the settlement check and would demand all administration documents regarding the check.

But on Wednesday, she broadened her criticism of the governor considerably saying that the governor should have removed director of the Department of Agriculture, Fred Ferrell, immediately after the Highway Patrol had concluded its investigation.

"I'm upset that we don't have proper checks and balances," Steelman said. "I don't think it's right for the women in state government. I don't think it sends the right message to our daughters."

Elder filed a law suit against Fred Ferrell, countersuing after the Agriculture Department sued her for refusing a settlement. She has accussed Ferrell of verbal and physical sexual harassment, according to a report of an investigation that was conducted in May 2006 by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Blunt spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday about his involvement with the 9-month sexual harassment investigation, telling reporters that the reason a sexual harassment settlement was paid by the Department of Agriculture is because the attorney general refused to get involved with the case for six months.

"I believed, the department believed, that the attorney general had a responsibility to be involved, but the attorney general's office refused to be involved and it made it impossible to have his office's involvement, obviously, because he refused to be involved," Blunt said. "I think this would have been much better if the attorney general had immediately exercised his dutie, met his responsibilities and represented the Department of Agriculture."

Blunt said he kept Ferrell in office because he thought Elder was satisfied with the settlement.

"There was clearly a belief that this had been settled and everyone had agreed to the deal," Blunt said.

Blunt said he agreed to keep Ferrell on the job on the condition that Ferrell give an apology, go through sensitivity training and pay a fine, Blunt said in a news release Monday.

In a time line outlined in the settlement documents, Elder first started saying she was not happy with the settlement at the end of November.

John Fougere, spokesman for Attorney General Jay Nixon, disputed Blunt's statement regarding the attorney general's involvement. He said the attorney general's office followed its normal procedure in representing the state.

"The administration's desire to keep their payment secret led to the attempt to use department fund rather than the state's legal defense fund, payments from which are public," Fougere said.

Blunt also said he does not know if the suit against Elder will be dropped -- that will be up to the Agriculture Department.