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Sen. McKenna appointed as Mo. labor director

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

Eds: Updates with quotes from McKenna and Fowler. Incorporates BC-MO--Parole Board. Adds byline.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon on Friday appointed a Democratic state senator to take over a labor department roiled by a discrimination allegation and tapped a Republican state House member for a position on the state parole board.

The appointments, which require the lawmakers to resign, come just weeks before the start of the 2014 session and mean there now will be three vacant House seats and one in the Senate.

Nixon's appointment of freshman Rep. Dennis Fowler to the Board of Probation and Parole will reduce the Republican ranks in the House to 108 seats -- one shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override gubernatorial vetoes.

His appointment of Sen. Ryan McKenna as director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations comes nine months after a shakeup of the agency's leadership.

In March, Nixon appointed labor director Larry Rebman to a new job as an administrative judge in Kansas City and also removed the department's employment security director, Gracia Backer. Since then, Backer has filed a complaint alleging she was fired in retaliation for raising concerns that Rebman was creating a hostile work environment and discriminating against women and older employees.

Rebman has denied the discrimination allegations. Nixon's office has declined to comment about Backer's complaint, citing the ongoing personnel case.

McKenna said Friday that Nixon's office recruited him for the labor director's job and didn't discuss the allegations of a hostile work environment in the agency.

"I don't know what the atmosphere is there right now," McKenna said. "But that chapter ends when I start."

McKenna, 40, said he wants to create an atmosphere of "mutual respect" in the labor department.

Like Nixon, McKenna is a Jefferson County native. He's the son of former Senate President Pro Tem Bill McKenna and is employed by the Labors-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust. Ryan McKenna first won election to the Missouri House in 1998 and to the Senate in 2006. He would have been barred by term limits from seeking re-election next year.

"The opportunity to be a member of a governor's cabinet doesn't happen very often. I think it's an opportunity that you just can't pass up," McKenna said.

McKenna and Fowler both said they expect to resign from the Legislature by next Wednesday.

Fowler, who turns 65 next week, has served just one year as a representative of the 151st House District in southeast Missouri. He's a Navy veteran who spent 38 years working in law enforcement.

Fowler said the parole board position is an opportunity "to get back into the business I know" while gaining a significant salary and pension increase in a six-year appointment that can carry him through to retirement.

Missouri lawmakers receive a salary of $35,915 annually, plus daily expense allowances when they are at the Capitol. Probation and Parole Board members make about $83,000 annually and the labor department director is paid $120,000 annually.

Nixon also announced several other labor department changes on Friday. He said Julie Gibson, who has served as the department's acting director, will return to her prior position as director of the Division of Workforce Development. Former state Sen. Ken Jacob, who has served as the acting director of the Division of Employment Security, will become the department's deputy director. The agency's Employment Security section now will be led by Nia Ray, who has been the director of the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

The appointments of McKenna, Fowler and Ray will be subject to Senate confirmation.


Follow David A. Lieb at http://www.twitter.com/DavidALieb

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