Dem's request salary equity audit
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Dem's request salary equity audit

Date: March 8, 2007
By: Sarah D. Wire
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - House Democratic Leader Jeff Harris, D- Columbia, asked the Speaker of the House of Representatives Thursday to establish a special House committee on sexual harassment in the wake of the recent sexual harassment controversy in Missouri politics that led to the departure of the State Agriculture director.

"This is a way to get to the bottom of questions resulting from the incident," Harris said.

Harris said the committee would focus on the allegations made against the former director of the Agriculture Department, Fred Ferrell. Ferrell was accused of sexually harassing his secretary, Heather Elder. He was asked to step down by Gov. Matt Blunt in late February.

Democrats have accused the governor of covering up the incident by using the State Highway Patrol to conduct the investigation, instead of the Missouri Human Rights Commission which is usual policy. Democrats also claim funds from the Agriculture Department were illegally used in an attempt to pay for Ferrell's accuser's silence.

The governor's office, who has denied allegations of a cover-up, was not available for comment.

In a letter to House Speaker Rod Jetton, Harris requested that the proposed committee investigate if the allegations were properly addressed, if the department retaliated against Elder and why the settlement money came from state funds.

Jetton said he has not had time to review the letter, but he thinks the House already has a good policy on sexual harassment.

"I know they review it every two years and when employees are getting trained," Jetton said. "We'll continue to review it and make it strong, but I think that as far as the House is concerned, we've got a great policy and I'm thinking it's working."

Harris' letter also stated that the special committee should review the sexual harassment policies at all state agencies, examine how previous harassment allegations were handled and look at Missouri Statutes to see if any changes are necessary.

But Jetton refused to comment on the need for a legislative investigation.

"I know it's in the executive department right now, and I know that between him and the auditor and the attorney general, they're all looking into it," Jetton said. "And at this point it's too early for me to say what we're going to do."

Harris said the incident "brings to light that even in the twenty-first century some people still treat women as if they are second-class citizens."

Paul Buckley, Assistant Commissioner in the Office of Administration ,said each state agency has it's own internal sexual harassment policy. He said this is because each agency is structured differently.

Buckley said although there is no state wide sensitivity training for state employees, "most agency's have it as part of new employee orientation."

Earlier this week, thirty Democrats called for State Auditor Susan Montee to perform a salary equity audit of all state employees to determine whether comments made by the former director of the Agriculture Department about the earning power of women were an isolated occurrence or an indication of institutional gender discrimination in state government.

Auditor's Office spokesman, Sean Spence, said the auditor's office has received the request from the Democrats and are looking into it.

Montee's office began an audit of the Agriculture Department when it became public that department funds were offered as part of a settlement.