After a lieutenant approved her request to work a different shift at the Missouri state prison in Bonne Terre in October 2013, corrections officer Michelle Mayes learned that he wanted something in return.
Lt. Oscar Roth told Mayes she had to pay a “debt” to him, she claimed in a complaint to supervisors. When she asked Roth what he meant, he answered, “You know,” and winked.
Roth pressed her on her debt for weeks. During one shift in December 2013, she told an investigator, someone came up behind her in a hallway, pressed his whole body against hers from behind, and pushed her up against a wall. She said she thought at first it was an offender but looked back and saw Roth.
An internal investigation at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center determined there were no cameras in the hallway to show exactly what happened. Roth at first said he was jokingly reminding her to pay her bills. Then he admitted that he might have told Mayes she owed him for the schedule change. And he didn’t know whether he had pushed her against a wall.
“But if he did,” the investigation found, “he only touched her with his shoulder.”
In August 2014, Roth got a letter from David Dormire, director of the division of adult institutions, informing him that he was being suspended without pay for one week for unprofessional and inappropriate actions.
Mayes is suing the Department of Corrections for sexual harassment and retaliation, in violation of the Missouri human rights act. Her case, filed in Madison County, about 100 miles south of St. Louis, is one of 33 cases pending against the Department of Corrections that allege harassment based on sex, religion or disability. No trial date has yet been set.
The state has paid $7.5 million in settlements and judgments in similar cases in the past four years. A story in a Kansas City weekly paper last month called attention to the issue, prompting the resignation of corrections director George Lombardi, the promise of multiple investigations by the Legislature and an audit of the state’s legal expense fund.
On Wednesday, Gov.-elect Eric Greitens announced he would appoint Anne Precythe, a prison official in North Carolina, to head a department that was “broken” whose officers were struggling in a “culture of harassment and neglect.”
The Mayes case puts a spotlight on the lack of oversight and professionalism in the department, and that the state didn’t care about protecting an employee from harassment, said Mayes’ attorney, Lara Owens.
Today Mayes says she continues to report to Roth, a scenario Owens called untenable.
“It’s a good job, with good benefits,” Owens said. “Why should she have to leave her job because of that?”
Roth did not respond to messages. The Missouri Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the investigative report, Roth was submitted to a computer voice stress analysis examination to determine whether he was being truthful. He denied telling Mayes that she owed him for the schedule change and pressing his body against hers. But the analyst said Roth showed deception in his responses, the report said.
It was not the first time someone had complained about Roth’s touching a female colleague inappropriately at work. Another supervisor told the investigator that Roth had a history of looking for romance at work. He said a male sergeant once caught Roth in a control room rubbing a female guard’s back and chest. Roth said he was helping her calm down from a panic attack. But the supervisor was directed to put Roth on an “employee performance” plan, which Roth had completed.
Roth was disciplined in 2009 for dropping paperwork on the floor in the presence of other supervisors so a subordinate would have to pick it up. And he was cautioned in 2014 after being observed playing cards while on duty.
“Why is he even still there?” Owens asked.
There is no strict legal requirement that an employer separate someone disciplined for harassment from someone who is harassed, said Marcia L. McCormick, a St. Louis University law professor and expert in employment law.
“If there is no other place to send the person, and it isn’t considered to be serious enough to terminate the person for the harassment that happened, then the employer might take a wait-and-see approach,” she said. But not separating them raises the possibility of retaliation.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said the litany of lawsuits at the Department of Corrections came as a surprise to him.
“I wasn’t aware of the Corrections stuff until some of that stuff burbled out in the press,” Nixon told the Post-Dispatch.
But he said he had not studied the cases since the problems surfaced earlier this month.
“Those would be questions better addressed to the attorney general who is handling the litigation,” Nixon said. “I do not spend a great deal of my time focused on litigation.”
The governor, who departs on Jan. 9, said he believed his administration was “very welcoming.”
“We try to have a good workplace, and I think we’ve dramatically succeeded in that,” Nixon said. “If there are challenges there, they should be fixed.”
It’s not clear how that process would start.
The Department of Corrections requires workers to undergo sexual harassment training on an annual basis. Agency spokesman David Owen did not respond to questions from the Post-Dispatch about whether that training has been ramped up in response to the rise in harassment allegations and lawsuits.
Other state agencies also require similar diversity and discrimination training, but there appears to be little oversight from the executive branch.
The state does not have a centralized Human Resources Department, therefore the implementation of sexual harassment policies and training varies from department to department,” said Ryan Burns, spokeswoman for the governor’s Office of Administration.
In an email, a spokesman for Attorney General Chris Koster’s office said that the increase in cases was partly due to changes in the law and state Supreme Court decisions that lowered the burden of proof for plaintiffs in harassment cases.
“Each of these changes makes employment cases harder to defend, and thus riskier and more expensive to the state,” the statement said.
Owens, the lawyer for Mayes, scoffs at the notion that changes to laws and rules are to blame.
“The law has changed so that employees are protected,” she said. “The Missouri Department of Corrections should focus on protecting all of its employees from harassment and retaliation instead of trying to shift the focus from its own inaction that allowed the harassment and retaliation to occur in the first place.”
She said the department needed to fix its culture of “boys will be boys” and acceptance of harassment.
“He should have been let go,” she said. “Why are they protecting Roth?”
Celeste Bott of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.