The House has voted to increase transparency when lawsuits against state agencies are settled. The legislation was prompted by the revelation that millions of tax dollars were paid out over several years in settling harassment and discrimination cases against the Department of Corrections.
House Committee Bill 7 would require the attorney general to report every month to the legislature and others about how the state’s legal expense fund – the fund from which money for settlements is taken – has been used.
Those cases against Corrections came to light late last year when an article on Pitch.com detailed several of them, and outlined how employees who complained about being harassed or discriminated against were victims of retaliation by fellow Corrections staff members.
House members said after the article came out that they were unaware of the settlements because those have been paid out of a line in the budget that has no spending limit on it. That meant departments never had to come to the legislature and justify how much their settlement agreements were costing the state.
St. Charles Republican Kathie Conway, who chairs the appropriations committee that oversees Corrections, said this bill is needed.
“This is something that needs to be in statute so that the legislature is not caught unaware of all the goings on in different departments,” said Conway.
House Democrat leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City) proposed that the reporting should cover all state agencies and not just the Department of Corrections. She said the reporting requirements could lead the legislature to make changes in policies or laws to address issues resulting in lawsuits in other agencies.
She hopes the legislature will go further and address the signing of gag orders by state employees who complain of harassment or discrimination, as some in the Corrections cases did under the terms of their settlements.
“While we can sunshine and get this information it does not give that employee the opportunity to give their side,” said McCann Beatty.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) announced in March he would begin monthly reporting on the activity of the legal expense fund. Legislators praised his decision but said HCB 7 is still needed to ensure future attorneys general will follow suit.
Hawley’s first such report comes out April 30.
HCB 7 would also require the Department of Corrections’ director to meet with the House’s committee overseeing that department twice each year to discuss issues with that department.
The House voted 150-1 to send the bill to the Senate, but only two weeks remain in the legislative session for that body to consider it.