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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s top health official, a licensed obstetrician/gynecologist, is the face of the state’s effort to end abortions at the only clinic in Missouri that performs them.

Dr. Randall Williams, a holdover from former Gov. Eric Greitens’ administration, is the expert Gov. Mike Parson leans on to explain why officials believe Planned Parenthood should be barred from terminating pregnancies at its Central West End clinic.

The abortion issue has put Williams, director of the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services, front and center in a debate that coincides with Parson, a Republican, signing legislation last month that will prohibit women from terminating their pregnancies after eight weeks, except in medical emergencies.

Williams anticipated criticism when he took the job as state health director in 2017, he said in response to written questions from the Post-Dispatch.

“Our job is to ensure the nearly 4,000 licensed health facilities are complying with current Missouri laws and regulations,” Williams said. “As for feedback, both positive and negative, I try to use it to help make us better at serving the people of Missouri.

“I also remember an old adage from my many years in court as an expert witness: If the facts are on your side, argue the facts; and if the facts are not on your side, impugn people’s motives. So I am discerning in interpreting some people’s motives when they provide feedback.”

Williams did not address his own views on abortion, saying only, “Abortion is legal in Missouri, and I want it to be safe.”

He wasn’t always a bureaucrat. From 1989 until 2015 he was an obstetrician in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. In that role, he says, he delivered more than 2,000 babies.

In 2011, Williams was a candidate for mayor of Raleigh, but came in last in the three-way, nonpartisan race. News reports at the time said Williams was a Republican who had supported President Barack Obama.

After Patrick McCrory was elected governor of North Carolina in 2013, Williams served on his transition team for health care issues. In 2015, he was named health director in North Carolina.

After two sometimes turbulent years, Williams came to Missouri in 2017 as Greitens assembled his cabinet.

Since his arrival, Williams has been among the most high-profile agency directors, primarily because he has generated controversy as the head of a department that licenses health care facilities, tracks the spread of disease and is setting up the state’s medical marijuana program.

Missouri House passes controversial new abortion bill

Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, which oversees abortions, walks past adhesive notes for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on the wall outside the governor's capitol building office on Friday, May 17, 2019. A large group of abortion rights activists demonstrated in the hallways following the passage by both legislatures of a strict abortion bill that virtually bans all abortion procedures in the state.

Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

With the clamor over the new abortion law still reverberating, a St. Louis judge issued an order this month allowing Missouri’s only abortion clinic to remain open amid a battle over the facility’s license.

That order expires on Friday, but meanwhile, Planned Parenthood has appealed the license denial to the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, where the judge said the matter belonged.

Planned Parenthood has asked the commission to allow it to continue abortions until at least Aug. 1, when the state and the clinic are scheduled to meet for a hearing.

The dispute centers around the results of a two-month state investigation into Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic. The state has outlined 30 deficiencies at the clinic, and it says the clinic has addressed a handful to the state’s satisfaction.

The deficiencies cited included inadequately supervised pelvic exams, failed surgical and medication abortions, untimely reporting of those failed procedures and poor communication with a contracted laboratory.

The state said some problems noted in the investigation caused “serious patient harm.”

In response, Planned Parenthood officials accused Parson’s administration of politicizing state health regulations to restrict access to legal abortions in Missouri.

Williams says politics have nothing to do with his department’s decision to revoke the license of the St. Louis clinic.

“There is no influence that is exerted or accepted in those areas, whether it be from the governor or the Legislature,” he said.

He also denied trying to discourage medication abortions by requiring pelvic exams before prescribing the pills. Planned Parenthood argues the exams are medically unnecessary in most cases, but Williams has said they are standard medical practice.

Missouri resident

Willams, 62, often wears a bow tie and likes to talk about running. According to his biography, he has run marathons in Boston, New York, Paris and Jerusalem, among other locations.

He has kept a home in North Carolina, where his wife, Elizabeth Williams, still lives and works. In Jefferson City, he lives in an apartment near the Capitol. He said he votes and pays taxes in Missouri.

Early in the morning, he often takes his dog Mo and sets off across the Missouri River bridge for a run. He says the Katy Trail is among his favorite places in Missouri.

“I love my run in the morning,” Williams said.

But his time in the capital city hasn’t always been tranquil.

Williams has sparred with lawmakers on a number of occasions, including in July 2018 when House budget writers scolded him for bungling a program that helps get stroke and heart attack patients to the most appropriate facility in the shortest amount of time.

The dust-up came after Parson vetoed $153,000 from the program, setting off alarm bells that the program might be discontinued.

Williams said the veto was a way to force hospitals to pay more to fund the program. He and Parson attempted to play down potential problems, arguing that their maneuver would not result in a break in service.

Lawmakers said they were misled about the intent of the veto.

Williams also was targeted by the House budget panel after he refused to release information about an outbreak of the tick-borne Bourbon virus.

In blocking the release of information, Williams cited confidentiality laws. Lawmakers responded by cutting eight positions in his agency’s budget.

Williams has been accused of being too secretive on other issues, as well.

This year, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce said the health department must release the results of lab tests related to 2017 protests in downtown St. Louis.

The judge wrote that Williams’ agency violated open records laws when it refused to release lab tests of a liquid that St. Louis County police said was thrown at officers during protests, which were sparked by the acquittal of former police Officer Jason Stockley on a murder charge for the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.

The judge ordered the state to pay the ACLU of Missouri, which sought the records, $10,754 in fines and legal fees.

The liquid was identified by police as apple cider vinegar.

Joyce’s ruling came two days after the Post-Dispatch filed a lawsuit against the agency for refusing to release records showing who is seeking to sell and grow medical marijuana in Missouri.

The department says the constitutional amendment that legalized medical marijuana forbids the release of the records.

Circuit Judge Daniel R. Green ruled in the Post-Dispatch’s favor last week.

The department also eliminated geographic details from its reporting of West Nile virus cases, citing privacy concerns.

“One of our agency’s top priorities is to follow the law and provide transparency and access to public information while using an abundance of caution to follow the law and protect confidential information,” Williams said.

N.C. controversy

The controversies Williams has faced in Missouri were foreshadowed during his tenure in North Carolina.

In 2016, the state’s toxicologist testified in a lawsuit that Williams and other environmental officials attempted to “play down the risk” of coal ash contamination of drinking wells by rescinding a do-not-drink notice.

The toxicologist said in a deposition that the state was telling people the water was safe when it knew it wasn’t.

Williams said he rescinded the warning notices because they were stirring up unwarranted fears.

“And that there was a concern that we had alarmed people disproportionate to the risk,” he said in a deposition.

The dispute led to the resignation of at least one state health official, who said she couldn’t support how Williams had downplayed the risks.

Williams’ actions became an issue when he was being confirmed in the Missouri Senate.

“After Flint, Michigan,” said Senate Majority Leader Gina Walsh, “I just want to make sure things like that don’t happen in my state,” referring to Flint’s problems with lead in its water supply. “Is it not your job to enforce your own rules?”

Williams ultimately was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.

When asked this week if he planned to continue on in Missouri, Williams said he would.

“I love Missouri, my colleagues, and the opportunity to help people and serve our great state.”

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jack Suntrup covers state government and politics for the Post-Dispatch.