Prison Broke Part 2: Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson calls for an investigation into the Missouri DOC.

One of Missouri’s most powerful elected officials announced December 1 that the mistreatment of dozens of Missouri Department of Corrections employees — reported in a recent story in The Pitch — will be investigated.

“The problems uncovered within many of the state’s correctional facilities are extremely concerning and merit a thorough investigation of the department’s practices,” Rep. Todd Richardson, speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives, told The Pitch in a statement. “We cannot and will not tolerate what appears to be a pervasive culture of sexual harassment that is also costing taxpayers millions of dollars. My colleagues and I will work with our new governor to ensure this kind of inappropriate behavior is not allowed within any part of our state government.”

George Lombardi, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, would not comment for this story. The Pitch has requested numerous interviews with Lombardi over the past several months to ask him about the department’s policy regarding discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation, but he has refused.

On Thursday, a reporter asked Lombardi’s spokesman, David Owen, for an interview to talk about the investigation, but Owen said the department “does not comment on matters under litigation.”

Owen would not explain what litigation he was referring to.

The Pitch story (“Prison Broke,” November 24) detailed many cases of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation against workers, often women, by their colleagues and supervisors in prisons across the state, including at the Kansas City Re-Entry Center, a minimum-security prison in the West Bottoms. Often the perpetrators received little or no discipline; some have kept their DOC jobs despite ample documentation describing actions that were lewd, debasing and vulgar.

The Pitch also has found that taxpayers have footed the bill for millions of dollars in jury awards, lawsuit settlements and legal fees. These have been paid not through the DOC’s budget but instead through a fund overseen by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

And the amounts have risen remarkably in recent years. From 2002 through 2006, the department paid $340,612 in settlements and judgments; from 2012 through 2016, settlement payments and judgments exploded to $7.6 million. During the first six months of 2016, the DOC was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims.

In January, a Jackson County Circuit Court jury awarded almost $2 million to Debra Hesse for discrimination and retaliation she faced while working at the Kansas City prison and, prior to her transfer here, at the Tipton prison.

In May, a DeKalb County Circuit Court jury awarded Janet Mignone almost $1.4 million to compensate for sexual harassment and retaliation she faced while working at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron.

More cases are looming. At least 33 lawsuits are awaiting trial, and more are pending approval from the Missouri Commission on Human Rights to proceed to court.

Rep. Rick Brattin, vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee and a Raymore Republican, told The Pitch last week that he and the committee were “blindsided” by the details in November story. Brattin said that Lombardi had never informed the Legislature about the lawsuits, the mistreatment of employees or how much money was being spent.

“I was shocked at this behavior, this rampant behavior that is going on unresolved,” Brattin told The Pitch. “You have my word, we will be looking into this. We need to dive into this as deep as we can. We will get to the bottom of it.”

Brattin said that Rep. Paul Fitzwater, the chairman of the corrections committee and a Potosi Republican, had been briefed on the details.

He also wondered why Attorney General Chris Koster, who signs the checks for the settlements, had not stepped forward with the information and tried to make the department reform itself.

“Where the heck was Koster?” Brattin asked. “Why was he not jumping down Lombardi’s throat? This is insanity. It is crazy the amount of money being spent on the lawsuits.”

Koster, a Democrat, who just lost the gubernatorial race and will have termed out as attorney general in January, did not respond to an interview request last week. The Pitch has sent him several such requests over the past several months as the initial story was being reported, but he would not agree to answer questions.

Missouri corrections officers are believed to be the lowest paid in the nation, earning an average of about $30,000 a year, according to two studies.

“If we are spending this much money on lawsuits, dear Lord, we should be able to spend money on better salaries,” Brattin said. “It’s pretty much the bottom of the barrel.” He added that, because corrections officers “are paid so poorly,” his corrections committee has talked with the DOC’s legislative liaison about finding money to increase salaries, but there is no plan in the works.

Brattin said he could recall Lombardi attending only one corrections committee meeting, to present a program called “Puppies for Parole,” which he believed would teach skills to inmates that would help rehabilitate them.

“I’ve reached out to him, but you don’t get much response,” Brattin said.

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