Bill seeks better oversight of state settlements, after harassment in Corrections Department

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.

Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty presents House Bill 858 to the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty presents House Bill 858 to the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

An article on 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.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City) has filed a House Bill 858, which would require the Attorney General to report to the General Assembly every month on activity concerning the state’s Legal Expense Fund.  That’s the fund from which the state pays all defense costs, including all settlements.

McCann Beatty and others say such reports would inform the legislature when there are problems in state agencies such as those coming to light in Corrections.

“We can’t possibly address the issue if we don’t know what’s happening,” McCann Beatty told the House Budget Committee, of which she was formerly a member.

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.

“It allows us to monitor what is going out of that fund so that we can see patterns, and see if there’s a problem,” said McCann Beatty.

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.

“I think if you look at that list you will see that these lawsuits – it is not simply the Department of Corrections, but in fact it is a statewide issue,” said McCann Beatty.  “As a legislature I think all of us want to see that climate changed.”

The budget committee is expected to vote on McCann Beatty’s bill tomorrow.