Ag director quits amid harassment suit

Legislators question Gov. Blunt’s response to sexual harassment complaint.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:15 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A top state government official was forced out of office Monday after court documents revealed details of a nine-month-old report of sexual harassment.

Fred Ferrell, director of the Department of Agriculture, asked his secretary to participate in a “wet T-shirt contest,” according to a 40-page report on an investigation that was conducted in May 2006 by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The report described the actions of Ferrell against 36-year-old Heather Elder, a former executive assistant to the state veterinarian. She filed a lawsuit Friday as a counterclaim to an earlier suit by the Agriculture Department that sought enforcement of a settlement agreement.

Gov. Matt Blunt relieved Ferrell of his position for two weeks in May but reinstated him on the condition that he give an apology, go through sensitivity training and pay a fine, Blunt said in a news release Monday.

“Prior to this week, it was the general belief that the issues involving the Missouri Agriculture Director were being resolved in a manner consistent with the goals of all parties involved with these very disappointing events,” Blunt said in the release. “It has now become apparent that he can no longer lead the department effectively, and I have today asked for and accepted his resignation.”

Blunt’s office declined any further comment.

The Associated Press reported that after Ferrell returned to office, Elder was offered a confidentiality agreement that included $70,000, paid vacation time and $12,500 in attorney fees. As a condition of the settlement, she was asked to resign.

Senate Democratic Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, suggested that the governor himself could use some sensitivity training.

“Sensitivity training, I think, is needed all the way around, and I am very concerned that the behavior that this man (Ferrell) showed was not dealt with in a better manner,” Coleman said.

House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he was “appalled” to learn that Blunt did not remove 66-year-old Ferrell nine months ago.

At that point, the governor appointed the Highway Patrol to conduct an investigation into the accusation.

“I’m just very surprised that the governor didn’t use better judgment, that he would reinstate this man after the governor read this report,” Harris said. “He should have been gone a long time ago.”

In the report, Elder is quoted as saying that “not only did Director Ferrell humiliate me sexually in front of two members of his management team, he also used his position and the promise of a promotion to continuously touch me, demean me and make inappropriate remarks to me. I was absolutely in fear of losing my job — an unclassified and highly political state job.”

Elder was quoted in the report as saying that she didn’t feel threatened by Ferrell until November 2005, three months after she was hired.

“He began to refer to me as ‘his beautiful girl,’ ‘his beautiful princess,’ ‘the light in his day.’ He began coming into my cubicle, while I was sitting in my chair, to place his cheek on my cheek,” Elder stated in the report.

In the report, Ferrell confirmed that he called Elder, other co-workers and his wife “show dogs.”

According to the report, in an interview conducted by Lt. L. Vislay of the Missouri Highway Patrol, “(Ferrell) conveyed a story how the term was used by his grandfather when he was younger.”

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, wrote a letter of disapproval

to Gov. Blunt’s office about the incident along with six Democratic female legislators. “There is a fund to pay settlements out of and it wasn’t paid out of that, and there was a real effort to cover it up,” Bray said.

Currently there is no statewide sexual harassment policy. They are determined by department, according to the Missouri Office of Administration.

John Fougere, press secretary for the Attorney General’s Office, said the Attorney General wasn’t involved in any investigation regarding the situation.

“It is troubling the Department of Agriculture would attempt to secretly spend up to $82,000 to keep this matter quiet,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles County, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, at first shrugged his shoulders when asked how the department could fund the settlement. Later, he said that departments have extra money in their budgets for any unexpected expenses.

“Departments have some flexibility, we give them a certain amount ...,” Gross said.

For Fiscal Year 2007, the Department of Agriculture was appropriated $42.7 million.

Bray added that in the mid-90s — under a then-Democrat-led legislature — she and her colleagues tried to institute a sexual harassment policy in the Capitol.

However, Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, said she supports Blunt in how he’s handled the situation.

“I work in a world of men. All the women here do. I’m obviously a minority. When a colleague of mine hugs me, I take that as a sign of support, of encouragement.

I could see where someone else would take it the other way, so this comes at a very difficult definition,” Cunningham said. “I think sometimes women need to grow up, too, and really understand and appreciate what encouragement can mean and recognize that. Now, do I realize it can be otherwise? Of course I do.”

Harris said he would never hug a colleague, and, as a man, it is important to know the lines between sexual harassment and just being friendly.

Missourian reporter Matt Tilden contributed to this report.

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