Blunt taps Katie Smith as Director of the Department of Agriculture
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Blunt taps Katie Smith as Director of the Department of Agriculture

Date: May 2, 2007
By: Matt Tilden
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Two months after a sexual harassment scandal forced Gov. Matt Blunt to ask for the resignation of the Agriculture Department director, Blunt has chosen a 29-year-old to be the first female Agriculture Director in Missouri history.

Katie Smith was announced as Blunt's choice Wednesday. She'll serve as the new director, pending approval by the Senate next week.

Smith has most recently served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Energy's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington D.C.

Smith is a graduate of MU and has worked for various governmental departments and three different Republican federal legislators.

Jessica Robinson, spokeswoman for Blunt, said that Smith has supervisory experience within the U.S. Department of Energy, in the Office of Fossil Energy, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the Office of Electricity. Smith also managed legislative operations and supervised staff for Congressman Sam Graves.

Smith said she is honored to be nominated for the position.

"I grew up on a farm in Platte County, Missouri and I'm very proud of my production agriculture background," Smith said. "If confirmed by the Senate, I'll look forward to advancing this administration's initiatives for the state's largest economic engine by promoting the use and production of biodiesel, building on the branded-beef initiative, and increasing the number of dairies in the state."

Blunt asked for the resignation of former Director Fred Ferrell on February 26, after allegations arose that Ferrell denied a female employee, Heather Elder, a promotion because of her gender, and made inappropriate comments toward various female employees. The Agriculture Department still has a pending lawsuit against Elder after she refused to accept a settlement and agree to resign.

Blunt was criticized by Democrats and Republican state Treasurer Sarah Steelman for waiting nine months to get rid of Ferrell after the original allegations arose.  

Blunt did not specifically address whether Smith's gender had an impact on his decision, but said:

"I want somebody that's a professional, somebody that is a good manager. I think that we have that. Somebody that understands how important it is to have a workplace that values all employees and treats them with respect and dignity."

One of Blunt's harshest critics in his handling of the Fred Ferrell case has been House Democratic Floor Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who sent a letter to the Republican Speaker of the House asking to create a special committee regarding sexual harassment after the Ferrell scandal.

Harris called the nomination of a woman as director "a positive step," but said that there will is a lot of work left to do in the Agriculture Department.

"I don't know her. I will, at this time, give her the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that she's a good choice to lead the Ag Department," Harris said. "I think Katie Smith is walking into a situation that, because of the governor's mismanagement, is going to be a challenging one."

Both Harris and Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said on Wednesday that they believe the lawsuit against Elder should be dropped.