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State finally resolves wrongful firing of UDOT employee

Published May 12, 2012 2:03 pm

Dispute • Denice Graham will get a new state job and legal fees.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Denice Graham starts a new state job Monday with a fresh slate.

Friday, the state gave her a check to cover $57,600 in legal fees she racked up fighting her wrongful firing last year from the Utah Department of Transportation for allegedly leaking information about the Interstate 15 reconstruction project.

That check and a new position in the Department of Human Resources make up the final pieces of a resolution that Graham says is fair.

"I feel satisfied that we reached an agreement to make me whole," Graham told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I'm looking forward to working in the HR department for the state. It will be a new experience."

Last month, Graham was given a $43,515.84 check for a year in back pay minus taxes, had her previously accrued leave reinstated and was given back a job at UDOT — though not the one handling labor and civil rights issues from which she had been fired.

In fact, she said she had been stuck in an "entry-level" position that didn't match her experience or skills.

On Friday, Graham said she was happy with the outcome.

"I felt strongly that I had been vindicated and UDOT needed to do the right thing, and I am happy that they did."

Jeff Herring, the human resources director who helped negotiate the final package, said it worked out well.

"Also, not part of the settlement, but there was a need in my office for some skills that Denice has. She has accepted a position in my department as an HR analyst."

Graham was fired at the direction of UDOT Director John Njord, who accused her of leaking information on the $1.1 billion I-15 contract in the wake of controversy over a $13 million payment to a losing bidder.

But a Career Service Review officer ruled in February that Graham hadn't released confidential information, called the firing an "abuse of discretion" and ordered her reinstated.

UDOT did that, but in a job that Graham complained was a big demotion. The case's handling drew more criticism when it was revealed that Njord had attempted to get her to sign a statement that she would urge the state Democratic Party not to use her termination to score political points against the administration of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

There also had been a series of disputes over back pay and attorneys fees — all now resolved.

"The message that I tried to get out all along has been for people to do the right thing, if they find themselves in this position," Graham said. "I am glad management did the right thing."

The group Alliance For A Better Utah, which had been among the biggest critics in the case, hailed Friday's development and commended the state for "finally doing the right thing."

Still, the Democratic-leaning group repeated its call for an independent investigation "to restore the public trust."