State Treasurer Sarah Steelman has stopped payment on a $70,000 check that was to have quietly settled a sexual harassment complaint against former State Agriculture Director Fred Ferrell. Steelman also has made a Sunshine Law request for all documents related to the decision by the Missouri Department of Agriculture to issue the check.
Former Agriculture Department employee, Heather Elder, returned the check sent to her by the department to settle the matter privately. Her complaint became public after the state filed suit, saying she backed out of an agreement. Elder has claimed no agreement was ever reached. She says she never signed a written settlement.
Ferrell resigned Monday after Governor Blunt requested his resignation. Democrats have harshly criticized the governor for taking action only after the allegations against Ferrell became public. The State Highway Patrol reported to the governor on its investigation of the complaint nine months ago. This past weekend, a spokesman for Blunt stated that the governor was appalled to learn about the inappropriate behavior. Blunt moved to terminate Ferrell unless he complied with a series of disciplinary sanctions. Ferrell remained on employment probation until his resignation.
Steelman says a lot of questions need to be answered about the process the Department of Agriculture took in trying to settle the case out-of-court and out of the public’s eye. She says it discloses a lack of checks and balances. Steelman questions why the Agriculture Department drew on its own account rather than going through the legal defense fund in the Attorney General’s office.
"Sexual harassment is a very serious problem and when allegations occur they should be properly and thoroughly investigated and followed with swift and meaningful action. However, the attitude that women should not serve in positions of power should never be tolerated," says Steelman.
Steelman is the first Republican to air complaints publicly about the process.