Blunt taps Platte City woman to lead agriculture department

Thursday, May 3, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A couple of months after the state agriculture director left amid accusations of sexual harassment, Gov. Matt Blunt chose a 29-year-old woman Wednesday to lead the agency.

Blunt named Katie Smith of Platte City the new director. Former director Fred Ferrell, a Charleston farmer, was forced to resign in February after an employee accused him of sexual harassment and refusing to promote her because she is a woman.

Smith most recently was a deputy assistant secretary in the federal Energy Department in Washington, D.C. She also has worked on agriculture issues for Republican Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent. Smith grew up on a Platte County farm that raised corn, soybeans, tobacco and cattle.

Blunt said he considered men and women for the job.

"I'm convinced that Katie Smith is the best person to lead the department at a very critical time," he said at a news conference announcing Smith's appointment. "I want somebody that's a professional ... that understands how important it is to have a workplace that values all employees and treats them with respect and dignity."

First woman for job

If confirmed by the Senate, Smith would be the first woman to lead the state Agriculture Department, Blunt said.

House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he was glad the agency has a woman as director after more than 70 years.

"We look forward to working with Director Smith in her efforts to restore integrity and equality at the department and improve its tarnished reputation," he said in a written statement.

Matt Boatright, who has served as interim director, will return to his previous role as the department's deputy director.

Smith said she was committed to providing a positive work environment in the agency.

"I will value every employee that's at the department," she said. "As a woman, I'm aware of the challenges that professional women sometimes face in the workplace."

Ferrell resigned after former employee Heather Elder accused him of kissing her, refusing to promote her and saying he would like to see her in a wet T-shirt contest, among other things.

Ferrell was temporarily suspended then reinstated by Blunt last May. He was forced to resign a few days after Elder's allegations were made public in a lawsuit in February.

Elder sued in response to a lawsuit first filed by the ag department, seeking to enforce what it says was a settlement agreement with her. Elder claims a final agreement was never reached.

A judge last week determined the case would proceed.

Blunt on Wednesday didn't directly answer when asked whether the state would drop its lawsuit, saying simply, "We intend to resolve it as quickly as possible."

Ferrell's appointment had been announced by Blunt in January 2005 during a ceremony at the state headquarters for the Missouri Farm Bureau, and on the day he resigned, Farm Bureau President Charlie Kruse said Ferrell had done a "superb" job.

In contrast, Blunt announced Smith's appointment at his Capitol office, and said the Farm Bureau was among many groups he consulted in searching for a new director.

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