Missouri Prisons Chief Out After Staff Reports of Harassment and Retaliation

by | December 16, 2016

By Kurt Erickson and Jeremy Kohler

In the wake of reports exposing a culture of harassment and retaliation in Missouri's prisons, the director of the agency sent a resignation letter to agency employees Thursday.

Although Missouri Department of Corrections chief George Lombardi remains on the job for now, his eight-year tenure as Gov. Jay Nixon's point man on prisons will not be renewed by incoming Gov.-elect Eric Greitens.

"We are going to replace him," Greitens senior adviser Austin Chambers told the Post-Dispatch.

In the resignation note obtained by the Post-Dispatch, Lombardi said he believes the initiatives put in place during his tenure have made Missouri a national model.

"I now walk away with as much dignity as I can muster and with the advice to each and every one of you to stand tall and have great pride in all you do each and every day," the email reads.

Reached on his cellphone Thursday morning, Lombardi would not elaborate.

"I'm not interested in talking to you," Lombardi told the Post-Dispatch.

The shake-up at the top of one of Missouri's largest state agencies comes after Pitch.com in Kansas City reported the state has paid millions in damages to employees who alleged they were harassed at work because of sex, religion or disability, and retaliated against for speaking out.

The volume of lawsuits -- particularly those concerning harassment and retaliation -- exploded in the last four years. The investigation by the weekly newspaper found that from 2012 through 2016, the state paid more than $7.5 million in settlement payments and judgments.

During the first six months of this year, the agency was ordered to pay more than $4 million to victims who were harassed and to those who faced retaliation after bringing complaints.

The allegations triggered calls for at least three different probes by the Legislature and state Auditor Nicole Galloway and left supporters stunned.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said he envisions the House and Senate conducting a joint investigation of the department.

"Whether Director Lombardi is there or not, our focus is to get to the bottom of what happened," Richardson said Thursday.

Chambers said Greitens is conducting a national search for a replacement.

"The governor-elect is committed to substantial reform and cleaning things up," Chambers said.

Rep. Paul Fitzwater, R-Potosi, had been backing Lombardi's bid to remain in the position after Greitens is sworn in Jan. 9.

After the news article surfaced, however, Fitzwater said he was ready to pull his support. He had planned to meet with Lombardi Monday but scrapped those plans.

"He knew it was taking place and nothing was being done," Fitzwater said of the harassment allegations. "Someone dropped the ball here. I don't know why we were not told. I know there needs to be some changes."

Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles, also had been supporting Lombardi for a job in the Greitens administration until the revelations of problems with the system, which includes 21 prisons throughout the state.

"This was just something that I felt wasn't excusable," Conway said.

According to emails obtained by the Post-Dispatch, on the same day the Pitch article appeared, Lombardi sent a résumé and cover letter to Greitens' transition office seeking to stay on the job.

"If there is any way you can see to help me I would be eternally grateful!" Lombardi wrote. "I still have the drive and energy to serve the Greitens administration and my 41 years of experience means that I have faced every crisis imaginable and have confidence accordingly to provide the leadership to guide this Department into the future."

Earlier emails show Lombardi has known Greitens for years.

"I have known him since he was a kid actually as he and my nephew grew up together," Lombardi wrote in September 2015.

"We have had lunch together and I have been with he and others at Cardinal games," he wrote of Greitens, noting that the former Navy SEAL had just announced his candidacy for governor as a conservative Republican.

"He really is a good person but DAMN his politics," Lombardi wrote.

In his letter to the transition team vetting potential Cabinet members, Lombardi said he was appointed as director of prisons by Republican Gov. John Ashcroft in 1986.

His career in corrections started in 1976 when he was warden of the state's pre-release center. He left the state payroll between 2006 and 2008 to serve as a prison consultant, but returned in 2009 when Nixon took over for Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.

The recent emails also show Lombardi wanted to address the Pitch.com article.

"What if anything can you give to respond," he asked in a note to top prison brass.

On Nov. 29, Lombardi contacted Fitzwater and Conway regarding the allegations contained in the article.

"I am so terribly sorry that I have not shared in detail previously the issues with KC. It is an egregious anomaly in our system and we have made yeoman efforts to rectify," he wrote.

Later that morning, Lombardi signaled he was worried about losing support from the two Republican lawmakers in his quest to stay on the job. In an email, he wrote: "Thank you for staying with me at least until we talk. I am deeply indebted to you both and hope I can assure you of my leadership. If I cannot, then I will totally understand your decision to resign your support."

Within the hour, Conway responded by saying, "I know this is a trying time. Representative Fitzwater and I are happy to meet with you."

That meeting never occurred, Conway said.

Chambers said the governor-elect is expected to begin naming his Cabinet picks soon.

Jesse Bogan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch