The speaker of the Missouri House has called for a “thorough investigation” into the Missouri Department of Corrections after a story in a Kansas City newspaper exposed a culture of harassment and retaliation in the prisons that is costing the state millions in court.

Missouri has paid millions in damages to employees who alleged they were harassed at work because of sex, religion or disability, and retaliated against for speaking out.

“We cannot and will not tolerate what appears to be a pervasive culture of sexual harassment that is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars,” said Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “My colleagues and I will work with our new governor to ensure this kind of inappropriate behavior is not allowed within any part of our state government.”

The volume of lawsuits — particularly those concerning harassment and retaliation — exploded in the last four years. An investigation by The Pitch, a weekly alternative newspaper, found that from 2012 through 2016, the state paid more than $7.5 million in settlement payments and judgments.

During the first six months of this year, the Pitch reported, the department was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims who were harassed and to those who faced retaliation after bringing complaints.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, said Richardson should appoint “a special investigative committee to determine the full extent of the problem, hold department leaders accountable and recommend corrective action.”

Authorities with oversight roles may have been blind to the judgments and settlements because they were paid from a state legal fund and not from the department’s budget.

“I never saw evidence of it happening,” said state Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, who sat on a corrections policy oversight committee in the House from 2012-2015.

While speaking to reporters about the state budget on Wednesday, Gov. Jay Nixon said he was unwilling to address lawsuits he wasn’t involved with.

“I’m just not aware of the specifics there,” said Nixon, a Democrat, who served as attorney general 16 years before being elected governor in 2008. He said he had “seen some of that stuff” but didn’t have “enough detail to be insightful.”

Nixon said he would get “prepped up” on the issue and address it at a later date.

Gov.-elect Eric Greitens, a Republican, did not respond to questions about the issue. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said no one in the department would comment. The candidate who was recently elected to replace him, Josh Hawley, said he was reviewing the matter.

George Lombardi, who has been director of the Department of Corrections during Nixon’s eight years, did not respond to a request for comment.

Conway said she was never made aware of harassment complaints in the department because settlements and judgments were paid out of the Office of Administration, and not the Missouri Department of Corrections.

“I’m very concerned that those of us in budgeting and the legislative process weren’t made aware of how much money the state was spending on these things,” she said. “I find that egregious, No. 1 that it happened at all, and No. 2 that those of us who work on budgets aren’t aware of how much is going out on problems that need to be addressed.”

She said she found Lombardi to be an effective leader who developed several unique programs, including one that puts offenders to work training rescue dogs. A 1,600-bed institution at Licking participates in the program.

“But this just kind of casts a pall on it,” she said.

REPORT BLOCKED

If the department has tried to deal with the problem internally, it has fought to keep details of its response a secret.

The Pitch investigation included a cluster of lawsuits at the West Bottoms prison in Kansas City. Three employees, two who filed lawsuits against the prison and a third who won a verdict, said they had faced threats to their lives.

An attorney for two of the employees asked the department to investigate the allegations of retaliation. The department hired a Kansas City-area lawyer to handle the investigation, which resulted in a 19-page report.

Koster filed a motion to seal the report, but a ruling by Jackson County Circuit Judge James Dale Youngs ordered it to be unsealed.

Despite the ruling, the Missouri Department of Corrections refused to provide a copy to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Gary Gross, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association in Jefferson City, said the problems with harassment and retaliation were well-known by department supervisors. He said the association, which represents 3,000 corrections officers across the state, helped employees file their grievances.

He said that under Missouri’s grievance process, those complaints would have been reviewed by Lombardi before becoming eligible for lawsuits.

“Maybe they have become so tight-knit that they don’t want to take action on each other to deal with this stuff,” he said. “But now the courts are dealing with it and it’s big-dollar numbers.”

He said he has also spoken with representatives for Greitens, who said they are “fully ready to deal with it.””You’re going to have to clean it out and clean it up,” he said.

The Pitch story was reported by Karen Dillon, a former Kansas City Star investigative reporter.

The story found that lawsuits alleging that racial and gender epithets at a number of prisons were a daily occurrence, and that male employees have commonly used vulgar terms to describe female employees, have inappropriately touched female guards and talked openly about private sexual matters.

The report found some cases in which supervisors promised good evaluations or promotions in exchange for sex.

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