JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – With growing concerns over the amount of money being spent by Missouri each year to pay lawsuit settlements, scrutiny of the state’s legal expense fund has become a focal point for several lawmakers.
The expenditures by the Attorney General’s Office from that particular fund have come under fire in the past few months following a report revealing a culture of harassment and discrimination within the Department of Corrections. Incidents of sexual assault, racism, and retaliation, along with a number of cases involving age discrimination in other departments, have spurned multiple lawsuits, costing the state millions of dollars in court.
In fact, information provided by the attorney general’s office shows that the state has paid more than $52 million over the last five years to settle lawsuits.
Though the state budget lists an “E” on the line item for the legal defense fund, which means estimated, but allows for more money to be spent than is actually appropriated, essentially giving it an unlimited amount of funding. But the legislature has appropriated roughly $30 million for the fund in the past five years, about $22 million short of what has actually been spent.
That has, in turn, led to lawmakers demanding more transparency in the matter.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, filed HB 858 to address the matter.
Under her proposed bill, the Attorney General’s Office would be required to provide monthly reports on the money spent from the legal expense fund.
“For years, state funds have been silently spent to settle allegations of wrongdoing with virtually no legislative oversight,” McCann Beatty said. “It is imperative that we begin holding our government more accountable.”
Beatty also sat in on the most recent Subcommittee on Corrections Workforce Environment and Conduct Thursday morning, an investigatory committee looking into the current culture within the department that has led to so many harassment claims and officer resignations.
Meanwhile, State Auditor Nicole Galloway has begun working on an investigation into the usage of the funds, and a legislative committee was created specifically to look into the allegations against the Dept. of Corrections.
McCann Beatty said that the problems lie throughout the state, pointing to several discrimination lawsuits coming from the Department of Labor as well as an age and discrimination lawsuit against the Missouri Veterans Commission. The largest settlement in the five-year time period comes from the $9 million paid to the family of Brandon Ellingson, an Iowa college student who drowned while handcuffed in the custody of a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper at the Lake of the Ozarks.
The Attorney General’s report shows that the DOC is responsible for about $4.5 million of the $52 million paid out over the last five years.
Members of the House Budget Committee all seemed to support McCann Beatty’s solution to the issue, passing it through with a vote of 28-0 on Thursday morning.
“House Bill 858 continues our ongoing efforts to increase transparency in state government,” McCann Beatty said. “This is a common-sense step to ensure taxpayer resources are being spent appropriately.”