Missouri has paid more than $52 million over the last five years to settle lawsuits against various state agencies, according to information provided to lawmakers by the attorney general’s office.
The majority of settlements pertain to litigation involving some form of discrimination. Of the 24 settlements paid out since last July, when the current fiscal year began, 18 involved allegations of discrimination, harassment or retaliation.
The $52 million figure doesn’t include jury awards to plaintiffs that are still on appeal and thus haven’t been paid out — such as a $3.7 million judgment against the Missouri Veterans Commission in an age and gender discrimination lawsuit or a $7 million judgment against the Department of Labor in a disability discrimination lawsuit.
The list of settlements was provided to the House budget committee just before a public hearing on legislation that would require the attorney general to submit a monthly report to the General Assembly detailing all activity regarding the state legal expense fund, which is used to settle lawsuits against the state.
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The committee discussed the bill Tuesday morning.
“This is about transparency,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat sponsoring the legislation. “These are public dollars, and while we’re dealing with a tight state budget, it’s even more important to have this information.”
The fund began to garner attention after a report in The Pitch on widespread accusations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation against the state Department of Corrections in recent years. A legislative committee was created specifically to look into the allegations against the department, and the state auditor is investigating the use of the fund.
“This is going to be a very important tool,” Rep. Kathie Conway, a St. Charles Republican, said of McCann Beatty’s bill. “There was really no way for the corrections committee or budget committee to know what was going on and what it was costing the state.”
McCann Beatty said the numbers provided by the attorney general’s office show that while there is a big problem in the Department of Corrections, it’s not isolated there.
While the department has been involved in far more settlements than any other state agency, the attorney general’s report shows it is responsible for roughly $4.5 million of the $52 million in settlements paid out in the last five years.
In the last seven months alone, the state has paid more than $17 million to settle 24 lawsuits. Most had nothing to do with the Corrections Department.
The biggest settlement during that time was $9 million paid to the family of Brandon Ellingson, an Iowa college student who drowned in handcuffs while in the custody of a state trooper. The state also agreed in November to pay a former Department of Labor employee $2 million to settle an age and gender discrimination lawsuit against Gov. Jay Nixon.
“This is a statewide issue,” McCann Beatty said. “There are problems in the Department of Corrections. But the problems are more widespread than I expected.”
The committee didn’t take a vote on the bill Tuesday, but there was no testimony in opposition.