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 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 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.