Payment blocked in Ag harassment case

Wednesday, February 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:01 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Treasurer Sarah Steelman on Tuesday questioned why the state Agriculture Department authorized a $70,000 payment in a failed attempt to quietly settle allegations against its director.

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 said 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 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.

Steelman’s statement was the first public criticism by a Republican of the administration’s action.

For the second day in a row, the governor’s office refused to comment on Democratic legislative charges surrounding Ferrell’s forced resignation on Monday and the governor’s actions after allegations of sexual harassment arose within the Agriculture Department. Blunt reinstated Ferrell two weeks after he was placed on administrative leave in May 2006, under the conditions that he apologize, undergo sensitivity training and pay a fine.

Democrats from the House and Senate held a news conference Tuesday morning, demanding an explanation from the governor’s office and calling for action from the legislature.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said the harassment allegations, and the governor’s actions once the allegations surfaced, represent a “culture of corruption” in government.

But House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said right now the issue is a personnel matter and the legislature should not get involved.

The governor’s office did not return several phone calls for comment.

Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

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