George Lombardi, the embattled director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, sent an email to his employees Thursday signaling that he was resigning following revelations of widespread harassment and discrimination in the state prison system.
But it now appears he plans to remain in the job until next month.
In the Thursday morning email, which was obtained by The Star, Lombardi said it was “with a heavy heart that I share with you my decision to retire/resign my position as director.”
“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,” Lombardi said in his email.
Yet a spokesman for the Department of Corrections said Lombardi will not be resigning. In fact, he’ll be staying on the job until Gov. Jay Nixon leaves office Jan. 9.
“The director has not resigned,” David Owen, communications director for the Department of Corrections, said in an email to The Star. “He will continue to serve as the director until the end of the current administration.”
Owen did not offer an explanation for Lombardi’s email to department employees, and Lombardi couldn’t be reached for comment. But a spokesman for Nixon also refuted the idea that Lombardi was stepping down.
“Those reports are not accurate,” said Scott Holste, the governor’s communications director. “He remains the director of corrections.”
Later in the day, Holste reiterated that Nixon’s office has “not received anything to indicate the director has resigned.”
Lombardi, who was nominated to his post by Nixon in 2008, has become a focus of criticism following a report last month published by The Pitch detailing harassment and discrimination lawsuits against the department. Employees alleged they were retaliated against for speaking out against the mistreatment.
Just this year, two discrimination lawsuits against the Department of Corrections resulted in juries ordering the state to pay more than $3 million in damages to the victims.
Debra Hesse was awarded $1.9 million and Janet Mignone was awarded $1.4 million, with both alleging gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation. The state has appealed both verdicts.
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, has said the House would take up a “very thorough review” of what’s been happening at the department when lawmakers return in January for the 2017 session.
“That will involve our budget committees but it’s also going to involve our policy committees, so we can get to the bottom of what’s going on and most importantly — how do we make the environment better than it is today?” Richardson said.
Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, has also promised an investigation. She said her office would review the state’s Legal Expense Fund from which payments are made to settle lawsuits against the state.
Lombardi had reportedly reached out to Gov.-elect Eric Greitens’ transition team in the hopes of staying on as department director. But Greitens was facing pressure from House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, to find a new department director.
“I implore your office to initiate a nationwide search for a new director in order to eliminate the deplorable behavior by some of the department’s correctional officers and foster a new culture of inclusiveness, professionalism and ethics,” McCann Beatty wrote in a letter to Greitens earlier this week.
McCann Beatty said Thursday morning that Lombardi should immediately step down.
“The continuing sexual harassment scandal at the Missouri Department of Corrections,” she said, “demands a change in leadership at the agency.”
As Nixon prepares to leave office next month, his administration is facing increased scrutiny over a spate of discrimination lawsuits filed against various state agencies.
Since 2014, juries have ordered the state to pay $16 million in damages in discrimination lawsuits involving the departments of corrections, labor, revenue and public safety, along with the Missouri Veterans Commission.
Nixon came under fire in October after he appointed longtime aide Brian May to serve as a judge on the 21st Judicial Circuit in St. Louis County. The appointment came despite May being involved in a $7 million discrimination lawsuit stemming from his time as deputy director of the Department of Labor.
Some questioned whether May should have gotten the appointment while allegations of discrimination were still pending. May was accused of creating a hostile work environment to force a disabled employee out of his job.
Critics also see May’s appointment as part of a pattern in Nixon’s administration.
On the same day Gracia Backer was fired from her job at the Department of Labor, her boss — former Department of Labor Director Larry Rebman — was appointed to a six-figure job as an administrative law judge in Kansas City.
Backer, a longtime Democratic lawmaker before joining the department, says she was fired because she complained to Nixon’s office that Rebman was discriminating against older female employees. Her dismissal came just weeks after she submitted to Nixon’s office more than a dozen names of other women who she said were prepared to verify her complaints about Rebman.
Backer sued in 2014, and late last month the case was settled. The state agreed to pay her $2 million.