WHAT OTHERS SAY: Gov. Jay Nixon owes explanation for departed department heads

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 | 5:11 p.m. CST

The circumstances surrounding the departure of two of Gov. Jay Nixon’s department directors this year deserve a closer look.

In October, Mr. Nixon’s administration announced that Jon Hagler, director of the Department of Agriculture, had stepped down to “pursue other interests.”

Just one day earlier, Beth Ewers, the associate director of meat and poultry inspection in that department, had resigned. She widely distributed a letter about her resignation, saying she was tired of “working in an environment of hostility, disrespect, intimidation, and fear.” She directed her criticism at Mr. Hagler.

That Mr. Hagler was out of a job the next day, with no official announcement from the governor’s office, would be curious, except it’s standard operating procedure in Mr. Nixon’s bunkered-up administration.

But sometimes the governor emerges for a media event when he can be tracked down by reporters. Even then, Mr. Nixon didn’t offer any further explanation for Mr. Hagler’s sudden desire to pursue other interests or comment on Ms. Ewers’ complaints. He praised Mr. Hagler.

Did somebody investigate Ms. Ewers’ complaints? Was she alone in her complaints? Were they taken seriously or dismissed? We don’t know.

Something similar happened in March when Larry Rebman vacated his position as the director of the Department of Labor. In that case, Mr. Nixon provided a golden parachute to a longtime loyalist, giving Mr. Rebman a six-figure job as an administrative law judge, again without explaining why a department head was removed.

On the same day this happened, Gracia Backer was fired from the Department of Labor. Why?

According to a complaint Ms. Backer filed with the Missouri Human Rights Commission, she believes it’s because she told the governor’s office that Mr. Rebman was hostile toward some of the women in his department.

The Associated Press reported last week that Ms. Backer’s complaint alleges Mr. Rebman discriminated against older, female employes. Ms. Backer is 63. She further alleges that he created a hostile work environment for women. She included in her complaint a resignation letter for former Human Rights Commission chairman Alvin Carter, who alleged that Mr. Rebman was “openly hostile” to the director of the commission, Alisa Warren.

Most damning, Ms. Backer explains that she made Mr. Nixon’s office aware of all of these allegations verbally and in writing. She said she gave the Nixon administration a list of 20 women ready to verify their complaints against Mr. Rebman. She was fired 17 days after she submitted a formal letter outlining her complaints.

On the day Mr. Rebman left the Department of Labor, Mr. Nixon praised him. He said nothing about Ms. Backer, a former state lawmaker, or her complaints.

Ms. Backer is not the first woman to complain about Mr. Rebman.

In July, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that the state reinstated the employment of Cindy Guthrie, a 31-year veteran of the labor department who had been fired in February. Ms. Guthrie filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission against Mr. Rebman, who fired her. Before the complaint had been adjudicated, but while Ms. Guthrie’s attorney was obtaining depositions, the state reinstated her to her old job with back pay.

In her complaint, Ms. Backer alleges that one of her “sins” was sticking up for Ms. Guthrie.

From here, it sure looks like she was fired because she didn’t keep her mouth shut. If so Mr. Nixon’s actions are at least as bad — and in some ways worse — than those of his predecessor, Gov. Matt Blunt. Mr. Blunt tried to cover up the sexual harassment activities of his own agriculture department director, Fred Ferrell.

In the end, though, Mr. Blunt fired Mr. Ferrell, and the public knew why. Even while he was covering it up, Mr. Blunt privately disciplined Mr. Ferrell — who referred to some of his female employees as “show dogs” — for his boorish behavior.

With Mr. Nixon, we know nothing of his actions.

We asked his administration if the departures of either Mr. Hagler or Mr. Rebman had anything to do with the accusations of hostility toward women directed at both of them.

We’re still waiting on an answer.

In this case, silence is not a virtue.

When Mr. Nixon jettisons male department heads while praising them, and says nothing at all about the complaints made against such men, it sends a clear message to female state employees.

It tells them that they are second-class citizens. That they better keep their concerns to themselves. That they are not valued as much as loyal friends of the governor who happen to have Y chromosomes.

When he was the attorney general, and the governor was a Republican, a similar turn of events would have offended Mr. Nixon.

When Mr. Blunt tried to cover up Mr. Ferrell’s misdeeds, Mr. Nixon said the governor’s actions “disgusted” him. He said the governor should have fired Mr. Ferrell when the allegations first surfaced.

“This is a very serious issue,” Mr. Nixon said at the time. “The fact that a department director in the state of Missouri let it be known to their employees that women did not have the same advancement opportunities as men in the department is very wrong.”

Yes, it was governor. It still is.

Mr. Nixon has a personal reputation that is beyond reproach. But through his actions (or inactions), he is telling female state employees that the value of political loyalty is worth more to him than creating a workplace free of hostility and discrimination.

It’s time for Mr. Nixon to get out of his bunker and tell us what happened to Mr. Hagler and Mr. Rebman. Tell the women who work for the state of Missouri whether or not they are valued. Mr. Nixon’s silence diminishes them. It diminishes whatever legacy he hopes to leave as governor of the state of Missouri.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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