Governor is the "offending' party

Friday, March 9, 2007

Sometimes the actions of Governor Matt Blunt confound me. Earlier this year, I struggled to understand why he seemed hellbent on establishing a form of a school voucher system for the state of Missouri that would give state tax credits to parents who sent their children to private schools. In my opinion, school vouchers are absolutely the worst thing the state could do to its public education system. It seems our governor should support what's best for all citizens and not the minority who send their children to private schools. Blunt even tried to appoint a private-school advocate to the State Board of Education, the governing body that oversees public schools. Luckily, a state senator blocked the appointment and Blunt eventually withdrew his candidate.

In the past few weeks, another issue involving Governor Blunt has been grabbing headlines. This latest action involves the handling of sexual harassment claims leveled against Agriculture Department Director Fred Ferrell. Based on the information we have read involving this case, our governor appeared to handle the matter in a secretive, "wink-wink" sort of way. Ferrell was placed on paid leave and not asked to resign by Blunt until the allegations against one of the governor's Cabinet members were made public.

It appears as if Governor Blunt was willing to offer a hush-hush settlement and then allow Ferrell to continue in one of the state's top jobs despite troubling claims made against the man. Blunt is even quoted as saying that only when it became clear that a settlement with the "offended" employee would not be reached that "it was necessary to ask for and accept Ferrell's resignation." This shows very poor judgment on the governor's part and it reveals a disturbing lack of character and integrity.

Claims of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and should never be hidden, especially when it involves those who work in public office and in positions of power. Ferrell is accused of inappropriate groping and kissing and with making sexually-charged comments toward a female who was under his authority. Blunt's reference to Heather Elder, the woman who is suing the state, as the "offended employee" is offensive. Elder is a victim and there is no question that Ferrell's comments were offensive. Ferrell was quoted as telling investigators that he did make references to wet T-shirt contests but did not intend for those comments to taken negatively. How else would a woman take those comments?

Blunt also stated that Ferrell's resignation was necessary because once the allegations against him were made public, Ferrell was having difficulty focusing on his job. Our governor doesn't seem to be too concerned about those working under Ferrell and how sexual harassment might affect their job performance.

Another aspect of this attempted cover-up is also troubling. A $70,000 check had been written out of the Agriculture Department's "equipment and expense" fund to settle the case. This is far from typical. Settlement checks are written from the state's legal defense fund overseen by the Attorney General's Office. Once again, it appears that another step to hide this situation from public view was made with the governor's knowledge and apparent blessing.

Treasurer Sarah Steelman stopped payment on the check and State Auditor Susan Montee wants an audit conducted at the department. The seemingly improper $70,000 expenditure would have been approved in-house by Ferrell, the "offending party."

When all aspects of this case are eventually made public, as they should have been from the start, I think we'll find further proof that the governor showed an alarming disregard for the public's right to know and an even more alarming willingness to look the other way and therefore condone sexual harassment in the workplace. I find Governor Matt Blunt's handling of this situation "offensive" and I believe he should be held accountable for his actions on election day.