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Sunday, March 4, 2007


On Feb. 26, Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Fred Ferrell was forced to resign over sexual harassment claims. The allegations first surfaced in May, prompting Gov. Matt Blunt to suspend Ferrell with pay for two weeks while the Missouri State Highway Patrol investigated. Blunt ultimately reinstated Ferrell, who at the time issued a vague, semi-apology “if my words or actions have offended anyone.”

The Blunt administration kept the patrol’s report on its investigation secret for nine months before it finally became public on Feb. 23, prompting Ferrell’s resignation three days later. The report included interviews with several agriculture department employees who said Ferrell made comments demeaning to women and criticizing their presence in the workplace. Witnesses also told the patrol Ferrell often hugged and kissed female employees. Following Ferrell’s resignation, Missouri Farm Bureau President Charlie Kruse issued a statement calling Ferrell “a visionary individual who exemplifies competence, strength and integrity.”

Several women legislators asked the governor to explain why he waited until details of the matter became public before dismissing Ferrell. Speaking to the media about it for the first time on Feb. 28, Blunt explained that Ferrell’s firing became necessary only when the former department employee at the center of the allegations refused to settle. “When it became clear that the offended employee was not satisfied and we were not going to settle the matter, it was necessary to ask for and accept his resignation,” Blunt said.

The former employee, Heather Elder, sued the state for sexual harassment and gender discrimination on Feb. 23. Her suit came after the state sued her in an attempt to force acceptance of a settlement of $70,000 plus $12,500 in attorney fees. On Feb. 5, the department sent her a settlement check, which she returned.

Although the check was returned, State Treasurer Sarah Steelman stopped payment on Feb. 27. The check was issued from the department’s equipment and expense fund, rather than the state’s legal defense fund, as is usually the case when settling litigation. Steelman suggested the department’s action in issuing the check directly was improper and was done without the legally required oversight by the Office of Administration. Steelman is investigating.

Blunt said the department issued the check because Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office refused to represent Ferrell. That, however, is not true. Following standard practice, Nixon’s office declined to get involved in the pre-litigation stage. Once the Missouri Commission on Human Rights issued Elder a right-to-sue letter, Nixon’s office agreed to take the case. In a letter dated Dec. 7, 2006, to Department of Natural Resources counsel Kurt Schaefer, who had been representing Ferrell, Deputy Attorney General Karen King Mitchell said “it is now appropriate for this office to provide representation to Mr. Ferrell.” That letter came two months before the agriculture department cut the attempted settlement check.

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