AP Interview: Mo. ag. director defends departure

 In this July 17, 2012 file photo, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, right, addresses local farmers and others involved in the agricultural industry with Jon Hagler, director or the Missouri Dept. of Agriculture, left, during a town hall-style meeting at Sharpe's Seed Business in Ewing, Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon abruptly replaced the director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, a day after another high-ranking employee resigned from the agency while citing a hostile work environment. The announcement by the governor included no explanation for why Jon Hagler was replaced as agriculture director. Hagler had served in the post since Nixon became governor in 2009.

In this July 17, 2012 file photo, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, right, addresses local farmers and others involved in the agricultural industry with Jon Hagler, director or the Missouri Dept. of Agriculture, left, during a town hall-style meeting at Sharpe's Seed Business in Ewing, Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon abruptly replaced the director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, a day after another high-ranking employee resigned from the agency while citing a hostile work environment. The announcement by the governor included no explanation for why Jon Hagler was replaced as agriculture director. Hagler had served in the post since Nixon became governor in 2009. Photo by The Associated Press.

By DAVID LIEB

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The week began with his divorce. A few days later, Missouri Agriculture Director Jon Hagler was accused by a high-ranking employee of creating a hostile and intimidating workplace. By the weekend, Hagler was out of a job.

Gov. Jay Nixon offered little explanation about why he replaced Hagler on Oct. 11, and Hagler was silent. But in an extended interview this weekend with The Associated Press, Hagler said the departure was his own idea and the timing merely a “horrible coincidence.”

Hagler said department employees may view him as “probably the toughest manager we ever had” because he expected a lot. But he denied managing with hostility and intimidation and put particular emphasis on expanding the department’s ranks of women and minorities during his nearly five years in office.

“We set very high expectations. I think we were tough but fair,” Hagler said. “I really believe we tried to operate like a business.”

In August, Hagler said he told Nixon during the Missouri State Fair he was ready to leave as director, having accomplished his professional goals. He also mentioned to the governor that it was going to be personally awkward to remain in office, as he was separated from his wife, state Rep. Linda Black, D-Desloge, who sits on House committees that shape agriculture policy and the department’s budget.

Their divorce became final Oct. 7.

Hagler said officials from Northwest Missouri State University had approached him in early October about interviewing for a job. He said he told Nixon’s staff Oct. 8 the interview likely would be made public and it was probably time to find a new agriculture director. On the same day, Hagler flew to Wyoming for an agriculture conference.

When he returned the evening of Oct. 10, Hagler said he got a message from Nixon’s office, telling him the governor was replacing him the next day.

That same evening, Hagler said he learned that Beth Ewers, the agency’s associate director of meat and poultry inspection, had resigned and distributed a letter to department employees and others outside the agency. Ewers wrote that she was tired of “working in an environment of hostility, disrespect, intimidation and fear.”

“It’s just really unfortunate timing for those two situations,” Hagler said.

It’s unclear whether Nixon was aware of Ewers’ letter, but the governor has denied that allegations of a hostile workplace led to Hagler’s replacement.

Additional allegations of intimidation by Hagler surfaced this past week when leaders of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association told the AP that Hagler was incensed by a critical magazine article in April and had called multiple association officials profanely threatening to beat up the group’s chief executive.

“That actually has some elements of truth,” Hagler told the AP, noting he’d apologized for his actions. “That was way too Old Testament. That’s not representative of me and should not have been said.

“However, it was 100 percent hyperbole — maybe I saw too many westerns that week,” he said.

Because of the public allegations, Hagler said he decided not to pursue the university job and started work Friday at a Missouri company where he is “advising them on some international stuff.” He declined to identify the company.

Hagler remained on the state payroll until this past Thursday, which is why he said he waited to address the allegations, so as not to violate rules against talking to the press. He also showed the AP several emails and texts from Agriculture Department employees thanking him for his work at the agency.

“I did the best job I could,” said Hagler, later adding: “What I’d like to do is just return to private life ... go away, give the department a little peace.”

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