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Peter Cooke, the Democratic candidate for governor, says it is time for Gov. Gary Herbert to take charge of lingering problems at the Utah Department of Transportation by firing Director John Njord and repaying a wrongly terminated employee the legal fees spent getting her job back.
"I think after this, and not taking care of his employees, [Njord] should be fired," Cooke said.
Cooke also said the attorney general "needs to investigate this full-force," or else an independent investigation should look at how UDOT handled the botched Interstate 15 bid two years ago, why the state paid $13 million to the losing bidder, why Denice Graham was fired and why nobody else has been held accountable for the episode.
Cooke’s comments mark the opening salvo from the Democrat’s campaign and a revival of an issue that followed Herbert through the 2010 election campaign.
Graham was fired by UDOT more than a year ago for allegedly leaking confidential information about the $1.1 billion contract to rebuild I-15 through Utah County. But an administrative law judge ruled the termination was baseless and ordered her reinstated.
She started back to work last month, but says she has been stuck in an "entry-level" position, although UDOT says her new job has the same salary and more potential for advancement than her previous job.
UDOT also haggled over $67,000 in back pay, with Njord suggesting at one point that she should tell Democrats to stop politicizing her case in order to receive the payment. Njord acknowledged that was a mistake and Graham accepted a check for her wages this week with no strings attached.
But Graham is still pressing for more than $50,000 in attorneys fees that she spent trying to win back her job.
Cooke said he spoke personally with Njord last week and was assured that the matter would be resolved. Based on that, Cooke said, he was willing to give Njord the benefit of the doubt. But he said it hasn’t been resolved and the governor has let it fester.
"I’ve had it with this issue," Cooke said in an interview. "Who is in control up there [at the Capitol]? It just keeps going on and on."
Herbert’s spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Herbert is not going to rush to judgment and fire "a recognized leader in the industry" over a disputed personnel issue with one of more than 1,600 employees.
"The governor has repeatedly stated that this administration will follow the appropriate defined process — which frankly, is only undermined by politically motivated attacks — while others seem intent to call for a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach."
Quin Monson, the associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said it’s understandable that Cooke would raise the UDOT issue, but it didn’t work for Peter Corroon, who used it consistently against Herbert in 2010.
"If this is all Cooke has got, it’s probably not enough," Monson said. "It wasn’t enough [for Corroon]. There’s not a smoking gun that makes it land in Herbert’s lap and makes it his responsibility."
Cooke, a retired two-star general, said the lack of accountability is something foreign to his military experience.
"It was a $13 million mistake by UDOT with taxpayers’ money. They made a [settlement] and the governor knew about that decision, or should have known," Cooke said. "The only person who gets in trouble is Denice."
Cooke said Graham’s ordeal could have a chilling effect on other state workers who are mistreated by their bosses.
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