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.
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.
Missouri House members were asked this week to consider whether Missouri should continue to have a death penalty.
Missouri reinstated the death penalty in 1977 and currently uses lethal injection to carry out executions. It most recently executed Mark Christeson on January 31 for the murders in 1998 of Susan Brouk and her children, ages 9 and 12.
Clay County Republican T.J. Berry offered an amendment that would have repealed Missouri’s capital punishment statute. It would make life without the possibility of parole Missouri’s maximum sentence.
Berry said he favored the death penalty when he first took office in 2011, but said after looking at it objectively he no longer supports it.
Berry cited three reasons he wants to end the death penalty in Missouri: people who are sentenced by courts are sometimes exonerated; it costs the state less to incarcerate a person for life than to sentence that person to death and respond to appeals through the life of the case; and it takes years for a death sentence to be carried out, extending the time victims’ families must deal with offenders’ cases.
House Democratic leader Gail McCann Beatty supports repeal. She agreed with another point Berry made; that some victims’ families don’t want the death penalty for those who harmed their loved ones. She told the chamber she believed this even though her brother and two nephews have been murdered.
Conway also told Berry she doesn’t favor replacing the death penalty with a life without parole sentence, because efforts have been made in the legislature to allow some offenders with such a sentence to be paroled when old age or terminal illness is a factor.