Legislature to investigate alleged ‘hostile working environment’ in Nixon administration

House speaker to create special committee

By Brendan Cullerton

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s House speaker has launched an investigation into Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration over charges of workplace abuse.

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, announced in a Nov. 5 statement that he will create a special committee to investigate allegations of a “hostile workplace environment” in the Nixon administration.

The announcement came after Agriculture Department Director Jon Hagler stepped down last month, following the resignation of an agency employee who recently filed a complaint against the department. Days later, a top Labor Department official disclosed she had filed an age-and-gender discrimination complaint against the administration.

“As this story has continued to evolve in the press, I have heard from many Missourians who are deeply concerned by the allegations made against the former department director,” Jones said in the statement. “Our goal is to root out any abusive behaviors and to make the department that oversees our state’s top industry the kind of efficient, well-run governmental agency that Missouri taxpayers deserve.”

Before resigning from the Agriculture Department, the associate director of the Missouri Meat and Poultry Inspection Program, Beth Ewers, slammed the administration in her complaint letter.

“Although I am saddened at the thought of abandoning a program that I have worked so hard to build and maintain, the thought of working in an environment of hostility, disrespect, intimidation and fear outweighs my need to prove myself,” the letter reads.

Jones appointed Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, to chair the committee.

“Because I work with the Department of Agriculture, it’s natural that I develop relationships, friendships, acquaintances in the department who have to deal directly with the department,” said Guernsey, who also chairs the House Agri-Business Committee. “Because of that, I’ve heard a lot.”

Guernsey said the scope of the committee’s investigation will cover the entire Nixon administration.

The formal discrimination complaint was filed by the former state Division of Employment Security director, Gracia Backer.

She charged she had been fired from the Labor Department for raising concerns of workplace discrimination, especially directed toward older female workers. Backer said the complaint against the Department of Agriculture reminded her of her experience with the Labor Department.

“When I read it, it was almost like deja vu,” Backer said last week. “Hostile working environment, retaliation, threats that you’re going to be fired if you do something wrong.”

Earlier this year and after Backer left, Nixon moved Labor Department Director Larry Rebman from the department to become a state administrative law judge.

Nixon’s office refused repeated requests for interviews, but did release a statement.

“This administration has always sought, and will continue to seek, to foster a highly qualified state workforce that is not only professional in demeanor and inclusive in its composition, but also one that is productive, accountable and consistently meets the high standards taxpayers expect and deserve,” Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said in the statement.

Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, vice chair of the newly formed Bipartisan Investigatory Committee on State Department Workplace Abuse, said the administration is wasting taxpayer dollars by not operating state departments efficiently. The committee members have not yet been announced, and Guernsey said he is not sure when the first committee hearing will be.