A recent audit by my office found Missouri taxpayers were on the hook for more than $115 million in legal settlements and judgments against state entities over the past six years – including more than $9 million paid out in cases involving allegations of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. But the dollar figure wasn’t our only concern.
We also discovered state officials lack the ability to produce basic electronic reports, making it difficult to track the cost to taxpayers. That also makes it challenging to identify if a state agency has had numerous claims against it – a possible sign of a toxic workplace culture, such as what came to light with the Department of Corrections in the past year.
There was another troubling part to the audit. Just as we’ve seen in Washington D.C., the state of Missouri has used non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in some legal settlements. These agreements, a legal tool that prevents a public discussion of settled claims, can hide long-term, festering problems – problems that often result in more lawsuits and greater costs to taxpayers.
I oppose the use of NDAs in settlements by the state. Especially when coupled with the compromised legal protections for whistleblowers under a bill signed into law by Gov. Greitens last year over my objections, these prohibitions can allow details of improper or illegal activities by government agencies to remain shrouded in secrecy.
Missourians have a right to know what is happening with the tax dollars they send to Jefferson City, just as workers have a right to know what is happening in their workplaces.
The last thing citizens expect when they send hard-earned tax dollars to their government in Jefferson City is for that money to be used to pay out million-dollar lawsuits that are preventable. But the reality is that Missourians would have very little ability to know any of this if it were not for brave whistleblowers who told their stories publicly, unfettered by non-disclosure agreements.
That’s why I am supporting legislation filed in both the Senate (SB 786) and the House (HB 1515) that protects whistleblowers and specifically prohibits non-disclosure agreements as part of legal settlements by the state. The Whistleblower and Taxpayer Protection Act positions Missouri as a leader for those who speak out against fraud, public corruption and government wrong-doing – and reverses our state’s troubling trend toward secrecy.
Toxic workplace cultures, especially those found in the public workplace, should be dealt with in the light – not swept under the rug. The Missouri General Assembly can bring much-needed light to how taxpayer dollars are used by changing the law to get rid of taxpayer-funded non-disclosure agreements.