Governor hired trade boss with no experience
Gov. Jon Huntsman has made economic development and international business a cornerstone of his administration. Yet he hired an auto parts manager with no apparent experience in either area to run the state's foreign trade office.
Layne Palmer managed NAPA Auto Parts in Tremonton before he went to work for the state. He is the father of Huntsman's executive assistant, Jami Palmer.
Until Wednesday, the official state Web site listed Layne Palmer as director of international trade and diplomacy. And he has been quoted in the news media using that title. At nearly $60,000 a year, he is the 28th highest-paid worker among 264 employees who staffed what used to be the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development. Palmer manages two other people, an intern and a former intern.
Asked about his qualifications for the director's job, Palmer said he has "traveled extensively" and has been involved in "entrepreneurial activities." He would not talk about his prior work experience.
Nor would Chris Roybal, Huntsman's chief economic adviser and spokesman. Roybal said he didn't know Palmer's qualifications. And he downplayed Palmer's responsibilities, saying the title was incorrectly listed on the state's Web site.
Roybal said Palmer is only in charge of hosting international groups that visit Utah and sending out questionnaires to find out more about Utah's 11 foreign trade representatives, he said.
"What he does does not require any international expertise," Roybal said.
Yet Palmer said he is in charge of analyzing the trade representative program.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, after The Salt Lake Tribune inquired about Palmer's title and resume, the Web site was changed to identify Palmer as international hosting and diplomacy associate. Citing open records law, The Tribune has requested documents related to Palmer's hiring.
State law generally prohibits employees from recommending relatives for state jobs. It is unclear if Jami Palmer, who worked on Huntsman's election campaign last year, had any influence in her father's hiring. She could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.
The issue of nepotism has been one of public concern this year. Salt Lake County recently strengthened its nepotism ordinance, prohibiting county officials from hiring their own relatives or influencing the hiring process. At the state level, Huntsman has been criticized for personnel decisions, too.
In January, the governor fired nearly three dozen employees of what once was the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development, including five employees of Utah's foreign trade office: Tina Stahlke Lewis, director of the International Business Office, and four trade specialists covering Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia.
The governor is evaluating whether to keep the other 11 foreign trade representatives who live abroad and work under contract. The envoys make $15,000 to $20,000 annually to help Utah companies do business overseas.
In the meantime, businesses and organizations involved in international trade are waiting for Huntsman to assemble an international division, hoping that no deals that could benefit Utah businesses are lost in the process.
"We're anxious to see what the new [international] initiative is going to look like," said Bill Barnhart, director of the International Center at the University of Utah.
Roybal said the state is in the process of hiring at least two trade specialists in Asia and Mexico, who will work out of the state office.