Government & Politics

With job discrimination bill on his desk, Gov. Greitens gets a personal plea: Veto it

In the middle of a contentious battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last July, Eric Greitens took a break from the campaign trail to vouch for his friend Pat Rowe Kerr.

Kerr was 56 when she was fired from her position at the Missouri Veterans Commission in 2009. She thought she’d lost her job not because of poor performance, but because Veterans Commission Director Larry Kay had a problem with older, successful women.

She filed a discrimination lawsuit against the state agency, and among a parade of witnesses testifying on her behalf was Greitens, who had regularly worked with Kerr on veterans issues.

After a two-week trial, a jury awarded Kerr nearly $3 million in damages. The first congratulatory call she got was from Greitens.

Kerr said his testimony “helped me achieve justice.” Now she says she’s hopeful that Greitens — who went on to win election as governor in November — will help ensure justice isn’t denied for others.

She’s calling on the governor to veto a bill approved by the GOP-dominated General Assembly that would make it much more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers.

“Your strength of character,” Kerr wrote in an open letter to Greitens posted on Facebook, “is one of the reasons I allowed you to use my name on nearly every committee you had when you ran for governor and one of the reasons I promised many Cole Countians and thousands across the state that you were the man for the job.”

Greitens hasn’t said publicly what he plans to do, and he didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Star.

The bill in question, Senate Bill 43, would require workers who claim discrimination in wrongful-termination lawsuits to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were fired. The current standard is much lower, requiring them to prove only that bias was a contributing factor.

Among the other provisions in the bill are changes to the state’s whistleblower laws — including removing protections for state employees — and limits to punitive damages for victims of workplace discrimination.

The bill also says employees can’t sue the individual who engaged in discriminatory actions. They can sue only the business itself.

Critics of the legislation say it rolls back decades of progress on civil rights and will make it virtually impossible for a victim of discrimination to win in court.

Its proponents say the changes are designed to reduce frivolous lawsuits and improve the state’s business climate.

Adding fuel to the debate is the fact that the sponsor of SB 43, Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington, owns a business currently being sued for discrimination.

An employee of Romine’s chain of rent-to-own furniture stores says in the lawsuit that she was targeted with racial slurs by a store manager, and that the store she worked in contained a map with a circle around an African-American neighborhood and a note saying “do not rent to.”

Romine has vehemently denied the accusations in the lawsuit, as well as allegations that he pushed the legislation to benefit his company. But a handful of Democrats in the Missouri House refused to vote on the legislation because, they said, doing so would make them complicit in a conflict of interest, and thus violate their oaths of office.

The governor has until July 14 to sign or veto the bill. If he does neither, it will automatically become law. Greitens told the media shortly after the legislative session ended in May that he hadn’t decided what he’d do with SB 43.

“I’m opposed to discrimination,” he said. “I’m opposed to any discrimination. I also think it’s important for us to take on trial attorneys who bring frivolous lawsuits. So I’m going to sit down and look at this bill and talk to people it’s going to affect on the front lines.”

Greitens had worked with Kerr during his time running a charity he founded, The Mission Continues. She was the Missouri Veterans Commission’s senior adviser of veterans’ outreach. Last year, Kerr agreed to serve on Greitens’ leadership team for his campaign.

The state is appealing Kerr’s judgment from last summer. Kay, who Kerr says discriminated against her, remains the executive director of the commission nearly a year after the verdict.

While the governor isn’t directly involved in choosing the executive director, he appoints the commission that does.

Three members of that commission are serving on expired terms, meaning Greitens could replace them at any time. Two more have terms that expire in November. The remaining four seats are held by legislators.

For now, Kerr is focused on appealing to her friend to listen to those calling for a veto of the bill.

“I ask that you veto this bill,” she wrote to the governor. “In doing so, you will be supporting the rights of the Missouri citizens who voted for you. It is the right thing to do and will be something you can proudly point to for the rest of your outstanding career.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock