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Missouri official alleges discrimination

Monday, October 28, 2013 | 5:51 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The former director of Missouri's unemployment benefits agency alleged Monday that she was fired by Gov. Jay Nixon's administration in retaliation for raising concerns that a Cabinet member was discriminating against women and older employees.

Gracia Backer was replaced in March as director of the Division of Employment Security in Missouri's labor department. Her ouster came at the same time that Nixon announced he was appointing Labor Department director Larry Rebman to a new job as an administrative judge in Kansas City.

Nixon said at the time that Rebman had done a "tremendous job" and the change would allow Rebman to return to his hometown. But Nixon never elaborated on Backer's dismissal.

On Monday, Backer provided The Associated Press with a copy of a discrimination complaint she filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The complaint says that Backer repeatedly told members of Nixon's administration that Rebman was creating a hostile work environment and was fired 17 days after she sent a formal letter outlining her concerns to Nixon's administration commissioner.

Discrimination complaints are kept confidential by the Human Rights Commission. But Backer chose to release hers to the AP.

Nixon's office "knew this was going on, and they chose to ignore it," Backer said in an interview. "They knew the terror that was being laid upon the Division of Employment Security."

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in an email that Backer's discrimination complaint is being "addressed in the normal course of personnel proceedings" and declined further comment.

Backer's complaint seeks to have her job restored with back wages and benefits and asks for unspecified damages for the "public humiliation and embarrassment" of being fired.

Backer, 63, of New Bloomfield, is a former Democratic state lawmaker who in 1996 became the first woman to serve as Missouri House majority leader. She lost a primary race for lieutenant governor in 2000 and served as the Employment Security director from 2001 to 2005 and again from 2009 until her firing earlier this year.

The complaint alleges that Rebman discriminated against Backer and other older employees, particularly older female administrators. It says Rebman directed Backer to give undeserved, poor evaluations to three female section chiefs in Backer's division in an effort to force them to retire or justify their potential firing.

One of those women, Cindy Guthrie, was fired by Rebman while Backer was gone at a conference, and another was suspended for three days without pay. Guthrie challenged the dismissal and was given her job back this summer.

Backer's discrimination complaint also alleges that Rebman wrongly tried to intervene in particular cases the department was investigating and took "demeaning and embarrassing actions" toward employees. Rebman once yelled and threw a document at Backer during a meeting, the complaint says.

Rebman declined Monday to comment about particular accusations against him.

"This is best left up to the courts," Rebman told the AP. "I didn't discriminate against Gracia Backer is all I'm going to say."

Backer is not the only labor department employee to complain about Rebman.

Included in her discrimination complaint is a copy of a resignation letter addressed to Nixon by a former member of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. Alvin Carter, who resigned Jan. 1, wrote that "Director Rebman is openly hostile" toward the commission's executive director, Alisa Warren, and appears "prepared to sabotage" the commission.

Backer's complaint says she shared her concerns about Rebman in October 2012 with a member of Nixon's office who previously was the deputy director of the Labor Department. Backer met with the personnel director for Nixon's administration three times in February and also took her concerns about Rebman to Nixon's policy director, Jeff Harris.

The complaint says Backer told Harris that "Rebman had become a monster and people were fed up with his tirades, rants, accusations and threats. Harris assured (Backer) that he would 'speak with someone.'"

Backer's complaint includes a copy of March 1 letter she sent to Nixon's administration commissioner, Doug Nelson, with a list of about 20 employees who she said could provide examples of discrimination or improper conduct by Rebman. She was fired March 18.

Backer told the AP that, 13 weeks after her dismissal, she was offered a new job by Nixon's administration at the Missouri Lottery. But Backer said she declined because the salary would have been significantly less than her prior job.

 


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