The state House is recommending the Department of Corrections make several policy changes to battle sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation, and favoritism among its employees.
After news articles last fall brought such issues to light, as well as millions of dollars in settlements with the state by former Corrections employees who had been victims, the House formed a subcommittee to investigate the work environment in the Department.
Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford) chaired that subcommittee. He and other members heard what they called “disturbing” reports of harassment and treatment of employees over the last few months, as current and former Corrections employees offered testimony.
Hansen said some of the subcommittee’s key recommendations are the implementation of a zero tolerance policy toward harassment; a change in how complaints are handled; the creation of a hotline for taking employee complaints with a mandated 24-hour response to calls; and a review of how employees are promoted and trained.
Hansen said some of those recommendations have already been implemented under the Department’s new director, Anne Precythe.
The legislature has passed a budget that aims to make state agencies more accountable when lawsuits against them cost taxpayer dollars.
Lawmakers learned last fall that the Department of Corrections had reached millions of dollars in settlements in recent years with employees who had been harassed, discriminated against, and in some cases retaliated against. Legislators said they didn’t know about apparent ongoing issues in Corrections because of how money for settlements was identified in the budget.
Settlements had come out of a single line in the budget called the legal expense fund, which had no spending limit. That meant legislators did not know how much money was being spent on settlements each year, and agencies didn’t have to explain to the legislature what was behind lawsuits against them.
The budget for the year starting July 1 would cap that line at $16-million. If settlements exceed that, the Office of Administration can pull up to $10-million from other funds it controls. If that isn’t enough, OA can then take money directly from the budget of the department involved in a given settlement.
The Attorney General has said he will also report to the legislature every month on the activity of the legal expense fund. House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said that’s why even if OA has to go to any of those additional places for settlement money, it must all pass through that fund.
Meanwhile the House has passed a bill that would require by law those monthly reports from the governor, but with the process moving slowly in recent weeks, House Democrat Leader Gail McCann Beatty (Kansas City) said she’s looking for other bills to which she can add that language.
The legislature’s top responsibility enters its final push this week, as Friday is the constitutional deadline for it to propose a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Beginning tomorrow, selected House and Senate members will work to negotiate a compromise between each chamber’s budget proposals. Any compromise the two sides reach must then be voted on by 6 p.m. Friday to be sent to Governor Eric Greitens (R).
The House proposed that the state should for the first time fully support the formula for funding K-12 schools. Early discussions in the Senate suggested it would do otherwise, but it decided to follow suit. That was the top priority for House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), and with both chambers agreeing on it, he says his priority now is clear.
“A balanced budget,” Fitzpatrick said.
Getting there by Friday, however, will be challenging. The difference between the two chambers’ budget proposals is somewhere beyond $100-million.
Fitzpatrick said much of that difference is in projects the Senate added when they were planning not to fully fund the K-12 education formula. When the Senate voted to instead fund the formula, it didn’t remove those projects.
Another substantial difference between the two proposals concerns “Es.” For several years, legislative budget makers have used an “E” at the end of a budget line to represent an open-ended spending limit. This was often used in places where predicting how much would be needed over the course of a fiscal year was particularly difficult, and it would allow an entity to exceed the budgeted amount if necessary. The effort to remove Es began several years ago, and the House proposed a budget that completed that removal.
The Senate restored some Es to various places in the budget. Fitzpatrick wants to remove those in the final compromise. He said their presence in the Senate’s proposal also distorts how far apart the House and Senate plans are.
Fitzpatrick said he doesn’t know how many more such examples exist throughout the budget plans.
One line of particular importance to Fitzpatrick and others in the House is the state’s legal expense fund, which has had an E on it. That line has been the focus of great legislative attention this year after the revelation that the Department of Corrections has settled millions of dollars in lawsuits in recent years in cases of employee harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
With an E on that line – the line from which comes the money for all settlements with the state – Corrections never had to come before a legislative committee to explain what was behind the multiple, large settlements. Lawmakers say that kept them in the dark as to the environment and repeated issues in the Corrections Department.
The House’s proposal replaced that line with lines in the budgets of each state agency. That meant any future settlement would come out of the involved agency’s budget, and if it had so many that it exceeded what the legislature appropriated, it would have to explain why to lawmakers. The Senate returned the legal expense fund to being a single line in the budget. Fitzpatrick and House members strongly want to see the House’s version restored.
House and Senate conferees begin meeting Tuesday morning. Their goal is to have a compromise ready for each chamber to vote on by Friday. Failure to meet the state Constitution’s deadline could mean legislators will have to meet in a special session, after the regular session ends on May 20, to complete a budget.
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.
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.
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.
The latest version of the House’s proposed budget would restructure the Department of Corrections, in light of how it handled cases of harassment and retaliation against employees.
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said his plan would redirect money that goes to the Department’s offices of Inspector General and Human Resources, and create an Office of Professional Standards.
Fitzpatrick said he worked with Corrections Director Anne Precythe in developing his proposal.
The House in January announced the creation of the Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after a news article revealed the Department had settled numerous lawsuits filed by former employees who had been harassed. Those settlements were costing the state millions of dollars.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Representative Jim Hansen (R-Frankford), said the committee came to a similar conclusion about the job that the inspector general had been doing.
Precythe did not speak to House Communications for this story, but the Department did supply a memo from her dated March 14. In that, she said the Office of Professional Standards will be made up of the Civil Rights Unit (formerly Human Resources), the Employee Conduct Unit (formerly the office of Inspector General), and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Unit.
She said new processes would “begin soon” and, “we are still fine tuning the remaining details,” but said, “We are changing our investigative processes to allow institutions to handle most offender-related incidents. This change allows us to reallocate resources into the Civil Rights Unit. The Civil Rights Unit will conduct investigations into allegations of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and unprofessional conduct. With additional resources, the Human Relations Officers will be able to conduct and complete investigations even faster than they do now.”
“In addition, Human Relations Officers will soon be conducting training statewide for all employees and will be doing additional outreach and follow up with employees who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, retaliation or unprofessional conduct. More Human Relations Officers also means more opportunities for them to visit institutions and offices throughout the state and interact with employees outside of the investigative process.”
Precythe explained the Employee Conduct Unit would investigate employee violations of procedure, unexpected offender deaths, suicides, and potential homicides. Those investigations would be assisted by law enforcement in certain cases.
Fitzpatrick’s budget also removes the “E” found on many lines in the budget. Those Es represents an open-ended spending limit on funds in which legislators expect money beyond what they allocate might be needed before the next budget is created. One such E was found on the budget line from which comes money for settlements the state must pay.
Fitzpatrick and others have said it is because that line had an “E” that legislators were unaware for years of the settlements involving the Department, and the harassment and retaliation issues that caused them. By removing the E, agencies must now come to the legislature and explain why they would need additional money for court settlements. That could shed light on recurring problems such as the Corrections Department had.
Fitzpatrick said he also proposes putting an appropriation for legal expenses in the budget of each state agency, whereas before the money for settlements across all agencies came from one line.
A top Department of Corrections official has told a House subcommittee poor training, bureaucracy, and the Department’s growth have contributed to problems with harassment and retaliation among Missouri prison employees.
Dave Dormire is the Department’s Director of Adult Institutions and has been in the Department more than 40 years. He has announced he will retire April 1.
He talked to the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct after it had heard testimony from several other department officials, employees, and former employees.
The subcommittee was formed after news articles shed light on cases in which Department employees alleged they’d been harassed and, in some cases, retaliated against. Several of those cases have gone to court, and several of those resulted in settlements costing the state millions of dollars.
Since September, 2011, Dormire has been responsible for some staff appointments, overseeing the safety of staff and inmates, and for disciplinary decisions.
Dormire was asked why some of the people who had been involved in those incidents still work for the Department. He told lawmakers some allegations go unsustained, and some efforts are made to correct employees rather than fire them after a first incident.
Committee members also asked Dormire about reports they’ve heard of nepotism in the Department’s hiring and promotion practices. At an earlier hearing, they heard from a former employee that wardens often ignore the recommendations of panels assigned to recommend employees for promotion. The system was described as one of “good ol’boys” hiring and promoting friends and relatives.
Dormire told lawmakers the Department used the state’s Merit system, created in state law to prevent favoritism, political influence, or arbitrary decisions in hiring and other employment decisions.
Committee members asked Dormire about allegations raised by recent articles by Pitch.com suggesting that he had been involved in retaliation against employees, and had been deceptive in his answers in some investigations. Dormire denied those allegations.
Travis Case, who is three years away from retiring from the Department, told lawmakers, “You come in every day and the negativity, it’s like you’re walking into hell.”
Case works in the Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, in its canteen – a store where inmates can purchase items including snacks, drinks, and tobacco products.
He told legislators that prison has seen a high rate of turnover with many veteran staff members leaving – an issue he believes likely exists department-wide. He said morale is low and complained that he believed prison wardens have too much power.
“This came out of a deputy warden’s mouth and I agree with him wholeheartedly,” said Case. “’We give these wardens the keys to the kingdom and we let them run it however they see fit, and that’s a big problem.’”
Case was talking to a panel formed to look into the environment in the Corrections system after reports came to light of employee-on-employee harassment and retaliation against those who reported problems. Some cases resulted in lawsuits, some of which the state has settled resulting in millions of dollars in payouts. Other cases are still pending.
Case said the Department’s policies, including its policy regarding harassment, are too vague.
“Missouri supposedly has a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment and discrimination, but the policies don’t reflect that. The policies are so vague that if you want to fire somebody for sexual harassment or discrimination or retaliation – whatever the case may be – you can do it if you want to, but if you don’t want to you also don’t have to,” said Case. “That’s where the favoritism comes in.”
The subcommittee also heard from Lieutenant Jason Horn, a corrections officer at the Farmington Correctional Center. Horn read off a litany of suggestions for improvements in the Department, including its handling of harassment.
“Send all claims of … discrimination, harassment, retaliation, to Human Resources. There should not be a choice. No passing the buck,” Horn recommended. “If we can have somebody with a nonbiased opinion come in and look at these problems and these issues in a way that they need to be looked at with no choice – with no choice of the warden or anyone else, then I think things would get dealt with a little more appropriately than they do.”
Subcommittee members expressed gratitude at the two men for coming to testify. After its previous hearing one panel member said it seemed as though department officials were, “passing the buck,” shuffling harassment claims back and forth between departments. Members expressed frustration at the answers they received from the Department’s Inspector General and its Division of Human Resources Director.
House lawmakers shocked by what some have called an environment of harassment and retaliation in the Department of Corrections are considering a bill they hope will let the legislature know when such situations are present.
An article on Pitch.com detailed numerous reports of employee-on-employee harassment in Corrections, including cases of retaliation against those who reported it. Some cases resulted in lawsuits that have cost the state millions in settlements and more cases are pending.
As House Communications reported in December, lawmakers say they didn’t know about the repeated incidents of harassment in part because the Legal Expense Fund has for years had an open-ended dollar amount in it. The line included an “E,” for “estimate,” which meant if expenses in that line exceeded what the legislature budgeted, more money could be spent on it.
That meant even though multiple lawsuits stemming from harassment cases in Corrections were being litigated and settled, the Department never had to come before the legislature and explain or justify the additional expense.
Budget makers plan to remove that “E” so that similar situations will have to be explained to the legislature in the future, but McCann Beatty’s proposal would require further accounting.
Lawmakers say such oversight could reveal similar recurring problems in other state agencies. McCann Beatty gave the Budget Committee information from the Attorney General’s Office showing the state had spent about $60-million on settlements in the past five years, though the legislature had only appropriated about $30-million for legal expenses.
In the fiscal year that began July 1, the Attorney General’s Office reports Missouri has expended more than $17-million in 24 settlements and 4 judgments. Those settlements include 16 discrimination or retaliation claims among seven state agencies.
A House subcommittee appointed to investigate harassment and retaliation in the Department of Corrections thinks how the Department handles allegations is not clear, at best.
The Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct was formed in response to an article on Pitch.com that detailed incidents within the department that in some cases led to lawsuits, costing the state millions of dollars.
The subcommittee took testimony from the department’s Inspector General, Amy Roderick, and the Division of Human Services Director, Cari Collins. Representatives asked questions about who handles harassment allegations and who makes decisions about any disciplinary actions that might be the result of those allegations. They weren’t satisfied with what they heard, with members calling the Department’s administrative structure “confusing.”
She said decisions about discipline of most prison employees, including terminations, falls on the Director of the Division of Adult Institutions, Dave Dormire, who answers to the Department Director.
Collins told the committee changes have been made in the past five years in her division’s procedures and its number of staff members that conduct investigations. She said some changes also followed meetings involving legal counsel, about the number of harassment complaints and resulting settlements.
Roderick told the committee her office does not handle harassment, but would investigate anything with a criminal component to it such as assaults. The committee asked her if she was familiar with an incident described in the Pitch.com article in which an employee who had complained about harassment was allegedly poisoned when she returned to work. Roderick said she had read the article, but had no knowledge of the incident.
Roderick said it would have been up to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), more commonly called the warden, of an institution whether to notify her office of such an incident.
Hansen said one of the subcommittee’s goals is to learn about how the Department is structured. After that hearing he expects one of the subcommittee’s recommendations will be that Corrections’ process of handling all types of complaints be streamlined.
The subcommittee is expected to hold its next hearing Thursday morning.
The “primary focus” for the incoming Director of the Department of Corrections is dealing with reports of harassment and retaliation within the department. That’s what Ann Precythe said after talking to a House subcommittee created to review those reports.
A news article citing court documents said some Corrections employees had been the victims of harassment by other employees. Some were retaliated against after reporting incidents, and some cases led to lawsuits that have resulted in millions of dollars of legal settlements by the state, with more pending.
Precythe spoke to the House Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct about her plans for the department. After her presentation she told reporters there is a “phenomenal framework” in place for dealing with custody and control and prison operations.
Precythe previously served as the Director of Community Corrections in North Carolina before being appointed in Missouri by Governor Eric Greitens (R). She told the committee North Carolina’s corrections system had a “zero tolerance” policy regarding harassment.
Precythe said she is still gathering information about what has happened in the department. She told the committee, “I don’t have the answers for certainty about what’s not working or why, but I do know what can work and how to implement it.”
She said that means focusing on holding staff accountable, training and education, and making sure staff understands what professionalism in the workplace looks like.
Missouri’s entry-level corrections officers are the lowest paid in the nation. Some have asked whether that could contribute to harassment issues, by lessening morale and making the keeping of the best employees more difficult.