Prison Broke, Part 6: How much longer can the DOC’s No. 2 man stay on the job?

Missouri Department of Corrections Director George Lombardi abruptly resigned in December, amid allegations of employee discrimination and retaliation, and the department’s new director, Anne Precythe, has issued an internal directive formalizing her zero-tolerance corruption policy. Gov. Eric Greitens, who appointed Precythe, has said that cleaning up the state’s prison system is one of his major goals.

But even as a legislative subcommittee seeks to root out the discrimination and harassment detailed in a story by The Pitch last November (which also reported that the state had been paying millions of dollars in legal settlements and jury awards to victims of this mistreatment), a number of implicated supervisors and rank-and-file employees remain employed by the department. 

And among those who enabled the DOC’s culture of bad behavior to fester for so long seems to be David Dormire — who, as division director, is the department’s second–most powerful official.

Dormire has been accused in at least one lawsuit of the kind of retaliation that was a hallmark of the Lombardi administration. In this case, two nurses who refused to drop their complaints of sexual harassment were subjected to further violation.

Transcripts from a 2000 federal jury trial reveal that department investigators, who were conducting a probe into the nurses’ complaints, believed that Dormire may have been deceptive in his responses to their questions about retaliation. But the inspector general prevented the investigators from questioning Dormire further.

Indeed, the department’s inspector general testified that Dormire may have been deceptive in several other cases, but in each of them, the investigators were prevented from questioning Dormire in more detail, once they believed he was being deceptive, according to a trial transcript. 

In that lawsuit, the jury decided in favor of the nurses and awarded them $280,000.

The Pitch asked to interview Dormire, but David Owen, the DOC’s spokesman, emailed: “The department is going to decline your request.” Owen provided no further explanation.

In fact, the department has turned down several requests to interview Dormire since The Pitch began investigating the discrimination cases that had flourished under his supervision. So it is difficult to know how Dormire has handled those cases — especially given that Missouri exempts personnel records from public scrutiny.

But in a Jackson County lawsuit last year, in which a Kansas City prison guard was awarded almost $2 million, Dormire showed a reluctance to get involved, according to that trial’s transcript.

Debra Hesse, who worked as a guard at Kansas City Reentry Center in the West Bottoms and in Tipton, had followed the chain of command, as prison policy dictates, to file her complaint, according to the trial transcript. Each time, her grievance was ignored or the paperwork was lost.

In frustration, Hesse sent her complaint to Dormire, in Jefferson City. 

Dormire refused to accept the complaint, writing to Hesse that she had to follow chain of command, trial transcripts said. 

Eventually, Hesse filed the lawsuit. The jury awarded her the $2 million a year ago, and the state is appealing.

Earlier this month, when told about Dormire’s role in discrimination cases, Rep. Jim Hansen, the chairman of the House subcommittee that is investigating the allegations, said he couldn’t address questions about Dormire’s situation specifically. But he said that he and the committee plan to question key staff members, including Dormire, in upcoming hearings.

“We are going to interview people, one at a time, who handled complaints in these cases and find out what was going on,” Hansen said.

Before Domire appears before legislators, he may want to think back a couple of decades.

In 1998, Dormire, then the Jefferson City Correctional Center superintendent, created a pilot program to bring two nurses to the prison, where they were to administer TB and hepatitis tests to employees. Dormire worked out a contract with Susan Nurnberg and Becky Hunt, who worked for a company called Favorite Nurses. The nurses would work in a clinic that Domire set up for them, with an exam room, a front office and a bathroom.

On Nurnberg and Hunt’s first day at the prison, according to a trial transcript, the women met Mitch Seaman and Rodney Perry, who introduced themselves as correctional officers in the fire and safety unit and told the nurses they would be supervising them. 

This was a lie.

The trial transcript indicates that the nurses were to report to Julie Ives, who was the coordinator for Dormire’s pilot program.

Seaman and Perry invited the nurses on a tour of the prison — one that, according to the trial transcript, lasted all day. 

The nurses testified that their two minders never looked them in the eyes but, instead, stared at their chests and maintained a physical proximity such that, the women said, they could feel Seaman and Perry breathing on their necks. 

“They were just like vultures, all over us” Nurnberg testified. “I was uncomfortable. I was intimidated.”

The next day, according to the trial transcript, Seaman and Perry returned to the clinic and spent their shift there with the nurses, Perry hovering over Nurnberg, and Seaman clinging to Hunt.

Nurnberg went to her supervisor, Julie Ives, and reported the men. Ives told Perry to back off. Nurnberg testified that Ives told her Perry was furious — that he “hated me, hated my guts and that he wanted us gone.”

Perry wouldn’t speak to Nurnberg, she testified, but glared at her and frightened her.

Seaman, meanwhile, was more talkative.

According to the trial transcript, Seaman often made improper comments about and to Hunt, including how she had a better-looking “butt” than other women, that he wanted to see her in a bikini, and that he found her attractive if she left the button on her sweater undone.

Seaman’s wife worked down the hall from the clinic, and Hunt testified that she wondered why he didn’t spend more time with her. Seaman would say “really nasty things about his wife,” Hunt testified. According to the transcript, he told both women: “I had sex with my wife and cleaned myself out over the weekend.”

One day, Hunt was working at her desk on her computer, and Seaman was leaning over the back of her chair, his face close to the back of her head, Nurnberg testified.

Nurnberg noticed that Seaman had an erection. After he left the clinic, she told Hunt, according to the transcript. Hunt was crying and testified she couldn’t believe the situation had gotten “so out of hand.” She complained to Ives.

During a meeting with Ives, Dormire, Perry and another employee, Perry demanded that Dormire fire the nurses immediately and escort them out.

Later, the nurses asked Ives why Perry hated them so much and what they could do to prevent that type of behavior. 

Ives, according to trial testimony, turned to Nurnberg and said, “But I’ve always found Rodney to be so attractive.”

Nurnberg responded, “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” according to the trial transcript.

Ives warned Nurnberg that if the nurses filed a formal complaint, the situation would only get worse. Ives told the nurses they could lose their jobs if they couldn’t find a way to get along with Seaman and Perry.

In another episode, Nurnberg was on the phone in the clinic when she turned around and saw Perry with a female employee. The female employee put her hand on Perry’s behind. 

“They were giggling and acting lovey-dovey, and Becky just looked at me and I just shook my head,” Nurnberg testified. “They looked at us to make sure that we saw them.”

The nurses met with Deborah Clay, a human resources officer in the DOC’s central office, according to court records. As the women laid out their complaints, Clay took notes, Nurnberg testified.

“At one point, she looked at me and sort of shook her head, and her mouth fell open,” Nurnberg testified. “Deborah said she just couldn’t believe this and would get back to us the very next day. We were excited. We were going to get it fixed. We never heard from her again.”

Next they talked with Alma McKinney, Ives’ supervisor.

“We had put a list together about behaviors, worries over harassment, lack of protocols, and our inability to get reports and addresses, phone numbers and health files,” Nurnberg testified. “When Becky brought up sexual harassment, Alma McKinney wouldn’t accept it, saying it was only unprofessional behavior. We never heard from her again.”

A couple of weeks later, the nurses met with an investigator and filed a formal complaint.

Within a week Dormire contacted Nurnberg and warned her that the formal complaint would “do a lot of damage” to the nursing program.

“Dormire said that new accusations would be made against me for making a formal complaint and that this would go on for at least six months,” Nurnberg testified. “He told me, ‘The next six months of your life will be a living hell.’ ”

Dormire didn’t offer any other solutions, Nurnberg said.

Over the next couple of months, Dormire would walk by the clinic several times a day, sometimes a dozen times, the nurses testified. They believed he was checking to see if they were doing their work. According to their testimony, Dormire also started checking their time cards. The women told the court that they’d been receiving hang-up phone calls at home, and Hunt testified that someone had followed her home once when she worked late.

Investigators probing the nurses’ complaints had questioned Seaman, Perry and Dormire and believed their responses were deceptive. One of the investigators filed a special request to conduct a computerized voice-stress analysis to further determine if the men were being deceptive, according to testimony by the department’s inspector general, Ercell Grimes Jr.

But Grimes testified that he allowed the test to be administered only to Seaman and Perry, not to Dormire.

The investigator, Grimes testified, “told me a number of times in a number of investigations that Dave Dormire had been deceptive, and he’s requested CVSAs [the voice test] a number of times on Dave Dormire. And he did so in this case. I didn’t allow it to be done. It’s my call.”

The tests that Grimes did allow indicated that Seaman and Perry had been deceptive.

“After reviewing this case and the information the investigators collected, it is my opinion that there is some truth to what the nurses have reported,” Grimes testified.

Lombardi — who, as division director at the time, determined punishment for misbehavior — decided that Seaman and Perry should receive a letter of caution explaining the importance of professionalism and the need to treat all staff fairly and with respect. He ordered Dormire to issue the letters.

By then, the nurses had quit. They would later testify that they left the program because they feared for their safety. They had been told that Dormire, Seaman, Perry and Ives would be disciplined, but they didn’t believe that it would happen, they testified.

“Retaliation from our harassment complaint has been horrendous, resulting in emotional and mental cruelty,” Hunt said in her resignation letter. “What I have been put through the last six months should never have been allowed to happen. The effects of my mistreatment here at JCCC will be long-lasting.”

Nurnberg testified during the trial, “The stress was so bad that it actually took me a very long time to adjust to being away from there. I spent most of my time worried and sick and almost throwing up because you know you have to work, but you don’t want to go into work.”

Dormire ultimately did not issue the cautionary letters to Seaman and Perry. No one involved in the nurses’ harassment was punished.

Dormire testified at the 2000 trial that he believed that any discipline would have been moot because the nurses had quit. In the wake of Lombardi’s resignation and its political fallout, Dormire might now find a similar logic not to be enough protection.

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