UDOT tried to silence politics around fired worker's case
The Utah Department of Transportation made an unusual request of a reinstated employee wrongly terminated in the wake of an Interstate 15 contracting scandal: Tell the Democrats to shut up about it.
Denice Graham was fired in April 2011, accused of leaking confidential information about the $1.1 billion contract to rebuild I-15 through Utah County. But an administrative law judge ruled her termination was inappropriate and ordered that she be reinstated.
Graham returned to work at UDOT on April 2 but has been negotiating with UDOT over more than $67,000 in back pay. As part of the negotiation, UDOT asked Graham to tell Democrats to stop using her case for political purposes and state that the judge erred in reinstating her.
"They wanted to make that a condition of me getting my back pay," Graham said Monday. "I said, 'No, I'm not signing.' "
"The money is important to me," said Graham, who was without income for a year and had to borrow money from relatives and skip holidays to make ends meet. "I need the money to get caught up on bills, but you know what: The money is not as important as having integrity and not agreeing to something that I know is unethical and so wrong in every way."
UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said that, early on in the negotiations, UDOT Executive Director John Njord had asked Graham to request that the Democratic Party stop referring to her case.
"John had felt like this whole situation, rather than being an HR [human resources] issue, rather than being a department issue, Denice and her attorney had made it a political issue," Easton said.
There had been petitions circulating from groups supporting the Democratic Party and statements and news releases from the party's boss. Easton said that removing the politics could allow Graham and UDOT to get back to work.
Easton said it was Njord's decision to ask for the letter, but on April 9, Gov. Gary Herbert's general counsel John Pearce told Njord to drop the request for the letter, and Njord did. Easton said they offered to pay Graham the $67,000, with no letter, but they didn't hear back, and she has evidently declined.
Now, talks over the back pay have broken down, and Graham and UDOT will go to the Career Service Review officer who reinstated Graham to make a determination on how much she should receive.
The letter asking the Democrats to stop using her case was drafted by Assistant Attorney General David Pena.
The letter attributed the problems to the hearing officer in her case, who made mistakes hearing her appeal.
"I hope you will respect my wishes and discontinue using my likeness and story in any political mailings, e-mails, etc.," read the letter that Pena asked Graham to sign.
Graham said she thought it was incredibly inappropriate to suggest the judge made mistakes in her case and that she has no control over the Democratic Party but supports its efforts.
Graham's firing and reinstatement followed the mishandled, billion-dollar highway contract, which saw a quiet $13 million settlement with a bidder and revelations of improper relationships between another contractor and a UDOT employee. The winning contractor was a large donor to the governor's previous election campaign.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said Graham is a courageous woman for standing up to UDOT and called the agency's attempt to silence her "outrageous" and "pathetic," showing the need for a change in leadership in the state.
"He's trying to shut her up," Dabakis said of the governor. "The governor owes her an apology, not conditions for paying her what is owed to her. I don't understand why he hasn't apologized and said, 'We are so sorry, Denice' and given her the check personally. Who treats employees like this? Nobody! This is really sleazy."
Herbert's office defended its actions.
"Decisions regarding personnel are made at the agency level," spokeswoman Ally Isom said in a statement.
"In every instance, the governor's office has directed UDOT to act in complete accordance with proper policy and protocol. Upon notification of UDOT's request of Ms. Graham to draft a letter to Democratic leaders, the governor's office promptly directed UDOT to rescind the request and comply with the ALJ's [administrative law judge's] ruling."
The group Alliance For a Better Utah had started an online petition demanding that Graham be given her job and benefits back.
Graham, who was the department's civil rights manager, said that since she returned to work she has been stuck in an engineering office doing work that doesn't use her skills and offers her no opportunity for advancement.
"I'm not working doing anything that is even close to the same level of responsibilities and duties [I had] as a manager. It's an entry-level position," she said.