Mo. lawmaker drops hostile-workplace hearing

By DAVID A. LIEB

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Republican House leaders had pledged a thorough investigation after allegations of a hostile workplace were made against the directors of Missouri's agriculture and labor departments.

But that now appears unlikely to happen.

The chairmen of two investigatory panels told The Associated Press on Tuesday that they have no plans to hold any hearings on the allegations. One of the chairmen said that's because he has full confidence in the newly appointed agriculture director, who was a childhood neighbor and mentor.

"At this point, I just don't see the need" to hold hearings, said Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, who was appointed in November as chairman of the Bipartisan Investigatory Committee on State Department Workplace Abuse.

Guernsey had been one of the lead critics last fall when allegations of a hostile workplace were made against Gov. Jay Nixon's former agriculture director, Jon Hagler, who was replaced in October. A couple of weeks later, former labor department employee Gracia Backer went public with allegations that she also had been subjected to hostility and discrimination by former labor director Larry Rebman, who was replaced last March. Hagler and Rebman both denied any wrongdoing.

On Nov. 1, House Speaker Tim Jones asked the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee led by Rep. Jay Barnes to look into the allegations involving the two agencies. Jones said he wanted to "be absolutely sure that the Nixon administration is not appointing people to positions of power and then standing idly by while they abuse state workers."

A few days later, Jones also appointed Guernsey to lead a special 15-person panel to investigate claims involving the agriculture department. Jones pledged a "comprehensive review of the way the department has been run and the way its employees have been treated." Guernsey said at the time that he expected to begin holding hearings before the end of November.

But those hearings never occurred.

In December, Nixon appointed northwest Missouri farmer Richard Fordyce as the new director of the Department of Agriculture. He also appointed state Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City, as the new director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Both won support from lawmakers.

Guernsey said Tuesday that Fordyce had been his childhood neighbor and a sponsor for his Future Farmers of America group in high school. With Fordyce in charge, Guernsey said, he no longer believes it's necessary to delve into any problems that may have existed under the previous leader of the agriculture department.

"I have full faith and confidence in his ability to take care of things and run the department," Guernsey said. "He's exactly the guy that needs to be in that position."

Jones told the AP on Tuesday that he was unaware Guernsey had no plans to hold hearings on the agriculture department's workplace environment.

"I'd want to hear from him why he's made the conclusion he has," Jones said.

The House speaker said Barnes hadn't scheduled any committee hearings because he "was overwhelmed with everything he was working on."

Barnes told the AP that he opted against holding hearings for several reasons, including an assumption that the issue was being addressed by Guernsey's committee. But Barnes, who is an attorney, said he also had been busy leading a special committee looking into potential Medicaid changes and was reluctant to interject lawmakers into potential litigation involving the labor department director.

Barnes said he prefers to focus his committee's oversight hearings on the performance of state policies and programs.

"Personnel issues are oft driven by personalities and have less to do with good or bad state policies," Barnes said.

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