State pays $82,500 to settle sexual harassment claim against director

Saturday, October 13, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The state paid $82,500 on Friday to settle claims that Missouri's former agriculture director sexually harassed an employee with unwanted hugs, kisses and a suggestion that he would like to see her in a wet T-shirt contest.

Department of Agriculture director Fred Ferrell, of Charleston, Mo., was forced to resign in late February by Gov. Matt Blunt, shortly after the allegations against him were made public because of a lawsuit.

An attorney for Ferrell's accuser, Heather Elder, said Friday that she decided to accept the settlement -- which is the same amount that had been offered almost a year ago -- to put the litigation behind her.

The settlement directs $70,000 to Elder and $12,500 to her attorney, Carla Holste. An additional $2,000 was paid previously to a mediator who attempted to help resolve the case last year before the details were publicized.

Ferrell was placed on paid leave in May 2006 during an internal investigation but then reinstated by Blunt without any public explanation of the allegations against him.

The Agriculture Department sued Elder in February seeking to enforce what it claimed was a mediated settlement agreement. Elder countersued for sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and only then did the state release the details of the internal investigation that had been conducted into Ferrell.

Blunt asked Ferrell to resign three days later, saying it had become apparent "that he can no longer lead the department effectively."

Missouri's open-records statute, known as the Sunshine Law, requires settlement agreements involving the government to be made public when the involved parties agree to them.

But the settlement itself does not spell out the accusations in any great detail. Early drafts of the settlement, obtained under the Sunshine Law, had included language that could have kept those specific allegations secret.

Holste said Elder had objected to prior confidentiality requirements. Her attorney also had tried to negotiate for more money.

But "it wasn't about the money," Holste said Friday. "Governor Blunt was trying to sweep her under the rug so that no one would know about all this, and that was just not something she was ever going to agree to, because quite frankly you can't in this state, and it was too important.

"She wanted to make sure that no other female employee was placed in the situation she was placed in," Holste added.

Blunt has previously denied efforts to keep the case secret, saying he always assumed it would be made public after a settlement.

The settlement was signed Feb. 28 by Ferrell and acting agriculture director Matt Boatright. Elder signed it Sept. 24.

The state didn't acknowledge the settlement publicly until Friday because it was waiting for the settlement checks to be issued from Missouri's legal expense fund, said Kurt Valentine, the general counsel for the Agriculture Department.

Among her accusations, Elder claimed that during a staff discussion of whether to create "jeans days," Ferrell told her that there should be a "tight jeans day" and a wet T-shirt contest. She said the director then pointed at her and said she needed to be the first in line for the contest. He brought up the contest again later that day.

In a highway patrol interview conducted for the internal investigation, Ferrell admitted making the comments about the wet T-shirt contest but denied that they were directed at Elder. He said the comment was intended to be "an analogy to illustrate the lack of professional image these 'dress down' days project."

Ferrell told investigators that he had hugged female employees but denied kissing them.

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