Steelman questions settlement in Ferrell's resignation
Jefferson City, MO – State Treasurer Sarah Steelman wants to know why Missouri's Agriculture Department authorized a $70,000 payment to settle allegations against its director, Fred Ferrell.
Agriculture Director Fred Ferrell resigned Monday at the request of the governor, several days after former employee Heather Elder filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Her lawsuit countered one filed last week by the state seeking to enforce what it claimed was a verbal settlement in which Elder would receive $70,000, plus an additional $12,500 for attorneys fees, in exchange for dropping her claims and resigning.
Elder rejected the check and never signed a written settlement agreement.
Steelman's office said Tuesday that the check had been authorized Feb. 5 out of an Agriculture Department fund for "equipment and expenses" and processed by the treasurer's office two days later. State departments routinely certify that their own payments are proper.
But Steelman questioned whether that was an appropriate decision. She formally stopped payment on the check Tuesday in case someone would still try to cash it and sent an open-records request to the Agriculture Department seeking any documents related to the decision to issue the check.
"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 in a written statement. "That is just wrong."
Steelman also questioned why the check was drawn from an Agriculture Department account instead of the legal defense fund in the attorney general's office.
Department of Natural Resources attorney Kurt Schaefer, who is representing the Agriculture Department, said Tuesday that he had sought to involve Attorney General Jay Nixon's office in the case but was initially rebuffed.
Schaefer provided The Associated Press with a series of letters and e-mails between himself and Nixon's office revealing a dispute dating to May over who should represent Ferrell. Each wanted the other to handle the case. Schaefer ultimately did.
Nixon spokesman John Fougere said Tuesday that the office only gets involved once disputes reach the litigation stage.
According to court documents, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights gave Elder a notice of her right to sue in a letter dated Nov. 27, 2006.
Deputy Attorney General Karen King Mitchell sent a letter Dec. 7 to Schaefer stating the attorney general's office now could represent Ferrell.
But Schaefer told the AP that the verbal settlement already had been reached by then and he no longer needed the attorney general's involvement.
Fougere said Nixon's office began representing Ferrell on Tuesday at the former director's request.
Meanwhile, the resignation has Democrats in the Missouri House and Senate critical of a bill they say would make it harder for victims of sexual harrassment to get justice.
They cite it as part of a "good-ol'-boy" network that led to the alleged hostile work environment at the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
The language of the bill deals with human rights violations as it relates to employer-worker relations.
But Democratic Representative Margaret Donnelly of St. Louis County says the bill would rewrite years of progress made in the area of employment discrimination:
"If you go back to motive and intent and not looking at what, you actually have unfair practices, it's a much harder standard to prove, and it becomes much more difficult," she said Tuesday.
But the bill's sponsor, Republican Senator John Loudon, also from St. Louis County, accuses Democrats of taking the bill way out of context. He says it's designed to give public schools extra protection from lawsuits.
"There's a lawsuit that, uh, the school districts have a brand new liability exposure they've never had before," Loudon said. "So the school districts are shaking with the potential explosion of insurance rates in response to this.
"To find this connected somehow to Fred Ferrell is just paranoia and silliness at best."