McEntee: Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control director Francine Giani tough and 'lucky'
Anyone who knows Francine Giani knows she's nobody's patsy.
The longtime public servant she's worked for five governors is now director of the state Department of Commerce and interim director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control Agency. She's had to be smart and tough to survive.
Consider that in September, the DABC's board held a closed-door meeting to tell her about members' dissatisfaction with her "management style." Only two people were present, but by her account, it wasn't pretty as DABC board chairman Richard Sperry insisted she report to the board, not the governor.
Giani's comments were measured but to the point. And unbeknownst to those in the meeting, it was recorded. Sound and video later were released to the public.
"I don't want anyone to think I'm a choir girl, but I'm really glad my tongue was held as much as it was," she said in a recent interview. "You can't just back me into a corner and not expect me to not come out fighting a bit."
Maybe, she mused, it's because she grew up in Queens, N.Y., in a Sicilian family where "you have to be able to speak a little louder to be heard at the dinner table. PASS ME THE PASTA!"
Giani's father had joined the LDS Church, and she was baptized into the faith. At 17, she came to Utah to attend Brigham Young University, an adventure that lasted exactly one week. She went straight home, enrolled at Hunter College and supported herself as a page for ABC's "Good Morning America" program and ABC News. Giani then came to work at KSL-TV.
In 1984, she began working for Norm Bangerter's gubernatorial campaign after he won the primary against Dan Marriott. When he won, she joined his staff and has been a state employee ever since.
"I've been lucky enough to have the trust of five governors [Bangerter, Mike Leavitt, Olene Walker, Jon Huntsman and Gary Herbert]," she said. "I've been lucky because those individuals have always encouraged me, and I've been in different roles.
"I've always been told to do the right thing, and if you do the right thing, we'll support you," she added. "There's a fair amount of comfort in that."
One example of that is a point in Bangerter's first campaign, when she and another volunteer got "information on an individual that would have been helpful for us to use."
They sat down with Bangerter, then speaker of the House, and asked about releasing it. He asked them, "Is that the right thing to do?"
"I thought it was fine, it was truthful and it might have bothered the candidate," Giani said. "But we never released the information. Those are the kinds of lessons that have stayed with me."
There have been times when the job, and the treatment she's occasionally gotten from, among others, lawmakers, have gotten her down.
"I've learned over the years that lobbyists and people don't have any problem disparaging you," Giani said.
But when she does leave government, she says, "I hope people will say, 'You know what? She was tough, but she was honest and she was ethical.' "
As a legislative reporter many years ago, I occasionally went the rounds with Giani during the Bangerter and Leavitt years, and I'm not the only one. But when there were hassles, they would quickly dissipate, and we would get back to doing our job and she to hers.
As director of two major departments, Giani remains sensitive to conflicts of interest, perceived or real. As a decision-maker, she'll recuse herself from meetings with someone who is a liquor licensee, for example.
And as a wife and the mother of twin 15Â½-year-old daughters, she feels an obligation to make sure she maintains her professional standards.
"I do the right thing because they watch the news and their friends whisper to them. I don't ever want to disappoint them," she said.
Giani also knows there will come a time to do something else with her life, such as retiring to be with her family, and very importantly, learning how to play the drums her husband bought for her.
"I'd take drum lessons," she said. "Or maybe cooking lessons."
Friends scoff, she said, and tell her she'd be bored. Not so. "I want to taste that, I really do."
For now, though, she's committed to doing what she's been asked to do.
"We'll keep working hard," she said. "Hopefully we'll be able to make the kind of changes we need to make and move forward."
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com and facebook.com/pegmcentee.