- Associated Press - Thursday, December 15, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s Department of Corrections director in emails obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday said he’s withdrawing his request to stay on under the next governor following calls for him to leave.

George Lombardi’s change of plans comes after reports of a culture of harassment and employee lawsuits that drew criticism from state lawmakers.

Kansas City’s alternative weekly newspaper The Pitch first reported that between 2012 and 2016, Missouri paid more than $7.5 million from its Legal Defense Fund on settlements and judgments related to those alleging sexual and other types of harassment and retaliation.

Lombardi’s emails show he had hoped to continue leading the agency under Republican Gov.-elect Eric Greitens once Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s term ends in January.

But Lombardi told attorney Lucinda Luetkemeyer, general counsel for Greitens’ transition team and his pick for the job once he takes office, that he was abandoning the plan after losing “complete support from both sides of the aisle.”

In an agency-wide email, Lombardi said he and other staffers “evolved this Department into a national model that is respected throughout the country.”

“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,” he wrote.

Department spokesman David Owen told The Associated Press that Lombardi will stay on until Greitens assumes office. In a previous statement, Owen said employees receive mandatory training that includes sexual harassment every year and supervisors must take training on preventing harassment every three years.

Reports of harassment spurred House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty on Thursday to call for Lombardi to step down. GOP House Speaker Todd Richardson earlier this month called for an investigation.

Republican Rep. Paul Fitzwater said he and other lawmakers had previously advocated for Lombardi to continue as director under Greitens.

They’ve since abandoned support, Fitzwater said. He said lawmakers were not informed about the settlement payments and called the situation “totally unacceptable.”

“The buck stops here,” Fitzwater said. “The man in charge, he should be responsible for those actions.”

Missouri Corrections Officers Association Director Gary Gross said the association was aware of harassment complaints for “quite some time” because the group helped employees filing grievances. He said he didn’t speak out earlier out of fear that his complaints would not be taken seriously.

Gross said not all employees alleging misconduct went through the grievance process, and he was “blown away” after reading reports of the prevalence of settlements.

“I knew they were going on, but I was about as shocked as anybody else at the outrageous number and the way they were handling and resolving these things,” Gross said. He added that many cases might not have made it to court if the department took action to discipline bad behavior.

Lombardi on Thursday also received emails of support. Missouri Supreme Court Judge Mary Russell told Lombardi he’s done a “fabulous job and multiply a strong legacy.” Several praised his work with the Puppies for Parole program he created in 2010. Under the program, inmates train shelter dogs for adoption.

Greitens’ transition team leader Austin Chambers said the governor is conducting a nationwide search for a new director and plans to “completely overhaul and reform” the agency.

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