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Group asks Utah governor to fire UDOT boss

Published April 25, 2012 12:09 pm

Transportation boss concedes that linkingback pay to political letter was a "bad idea."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

John Njord, the head of Utah's transportation department, should be fired for mishandling the ouster and reinstatement of Denice Graham, who was accused of leaking confidential information, a good-government group said Tuesday.

"Based on what he has done with Denice's position alone, he should go," Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a Democratic-leaning group, said in an interview. "The buck has got to stop somewhere. I don't see any responsibility at the top of the food chain, and I think that's an injustice."

Martindale said Gov. Gary Herbert should investigate the handling of Graham's case as well as the ethical culture at the Utah Department of Transportation and the $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County, which resulted in a $13 million payout to avoid litigation by a losing bidder.

Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said there would be no investigation at this time. She said the Graham case is a personnel matter and UDOT has been directed to handle it appropriately.

"External attempts to politicize the process are neither constructive nor appropriate," she said. "The governor has been very clear: Facts and performance, not politics, will govern the decision-making in these administrative processes."

Njord fired Graham more than a year ago, accusing her of leaking information on the $1.1 billion I-15 contract. An administrative law judge ruled she didn't release confidential information, called the termination an "abuse of discretion" and ordered her reinstated.

Graham went back to work this month, but has been wrangling with UDOT about $67,000-plus in back pay. Earlier this month, Njord — as a condition of granting her back pay — asked Graham to write a letter to the Democratic Party requesting that it stop using her case to criticize the governor. She refused.

"I couldn't believe it," Graham said of the offer. "I'm sorry that the taxpayers are bearing the brunt of what happened at UDOT."

Graham said it would be up to the governor to decide if an investigation is warranted.

Martindale argued Graham — who said she has been stuck in an entry-level job in the engineering department since her return — should be given her job back as civil rights manager.

Njord defended UDOT's handling of Graham's case.

"It's unfortunate that [Graham] wants to make a political issue out of this," Njord said in an interview.

He said Graham's original job was consolidated to cut costs, but her new one pays the same and has more potential for advancement than her previous post.

Njord acknowledged that asking Graham to request that Democrats quit promoting her case was a mistake, but said it was made during a brainstorming session that was supposed to be confidential and was shot down by the governor's office.

"I briefed the governor's staff on what we were negotiating, and they said it's not a good idea and we took it off the table," Njord said. "It was a bad idea. It was my idea."

But an investigation is unnecessary, he said. The state auditor reviewed the I-15 contract at the governor's request and identified a series of problems that Njord said have been fixed.

Njord said it was unfortunate that the judge ordered Graham to be reinstated. He said UDOT could have appealed but opted to give her a chance.

Graham rejected UDOT's last offer for back pay because, she said, it would have required her to keep quiet about the agreement and she wasn't willing to give up her rights. Njord said the offer merely included basic language that neither UDOT nor Graham would disparage each other.

The back-pay issue now returns to the Career Service Review Office. Graham wants her $67,000-plus and believes UDOT should pay her attorney fees, which exceed $50,000. But the office cannot award attorney fees, and Njord said the department has already agreed to give her back pay, which is something the judge didn't order the department to do.