JEFFERSON CITY • State lawmakers blasted the Missouri Department of Corrections Thursday, saying the agency is “dysfunctional” when it comes to addressing harassment in the workplace.
Against the backdrop of millions of taxpayer dollars being paid out to prison workers who face sexual harassment and retaliation, a special committee grilled the inspector general of the sprawling state agency, as well as a top department human relations officer.
They concluded that the agency allowed problems to fester because of bureaucratic mismanagement.
“The checks and balances aren’t there,” said Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat. “It really seems like it’s passing the buck.”
“To me it appears to be a shell game,” added Rep. Jim Hansen, a Frankford Republican who is chairing the committee investigating the department.
The panel’s work comes in response to a report in Pitch.com that outlined how the state has paid millions of dollars in damages to female guards who alleged they were harassed at work and retaliated against for speaking out.
During the first six months of 2016, the agency was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims who were harassed and to those who faced retaliation after bringing complaints.
Before the scandal went public, former Corrections Director George Lombardi had been lobbying to continue his tenure under new Gov. Eric Greitens. Instead, facing a loss of support from lawmakers, Lombardi dropped his bid and resigned. Greitens has since named Anne Precythe as director.
Precythe, a former North Carolina prison official, said she will have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment among employees.
But the committee found the current structure of the agency can lead to top officials’ being unaware of problems in divisions not under their control.
“The ball is getting dropped somewhere,” said Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge.
“It’s like we’re just passing the buck,” Franks added.
In particular, the inspector general’s office, which focuses its investigations on criminal wrongdoing among workers and inmates, was not involved in cracking down on sexual harassment within the agency.
That job fell to the human services division, headed by Director Cari Collins.
Collins said the division was attempting to address the mushrooming number of allegations through various policy changes.
For example, the department has expanded areas of allegations that can be reported to include “unprofessional” conduct. More responsibility has been placed on supervisors, and additional employees have been hired to conduct investigations.
“We increased the number of ways an employee can report allegations,” Collins told the panel.
Collins said an estimated 22 cases were pending against employees, but that number may be larger.
“They file them every day,” Collins said.
A Post-Dispatch analysis in December found that at least 33 harassment cases are pending against the department, potentially costing taxpayers more money in settlements.
A review of those cases found that racial and gender epithets are common among employees at a number of prisons. In one case, a female employee at the state prison in Bonne Terre alleged she was harassed by her supervisor after she requested a different shift in 2013.
Inspector General Amy Roderick, however, told the committee that her office was not involved in the investigation of harassment cases, even though some rose to the level of criminal behavior.
That drew the ire of lawmakers, who said bureaucratic red tape was keeping the full extent of the problem under wraps.
“I think what puzzles me the most, is that you are kind of out of the loop on some of these things,” said Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles.
Rep. Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, said the agency needed more oversight in its operations.
“The Department of Corrections has been policing itself,” Fitzwater said.
Hansen said he had been deluged with information from people who have stories to tell about the department and its “dysfunctional” operation.
“We have serious problems we are looking into,” Hansen said. “Information that has been sent to me is very disturbing. Our goal is to make things better.”