Francine Giani, Utah’s longest-serving state director, calls it a day

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this file photo from her days as director of Consumer Protection, Francine Giani, talks to reporters about the then embattled Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, that Giani would retire after 35 years in state government.

Five governors and 35 years later, Francine Giani is retiring from state government.

“Francine Giani is one of a kind," Gov. Gary Herbert, her latest boss, said in a statement released Friday. “She has always been a firm but fair leader with an unwavering passion for protecting Utah consumers and keeping the playing field level for all businesses.”

Giani, who has served as executive director of the Department of Commerce since 2005, will be replaced by Public Utilities Division Director Chris Parker, who, beginning Jan. 17, will step in as interim director of the department while maintaining his current duties.

For Giani, leading the Commerce Department has been one of many roles.

During her decades on the public payroll, Giani has served as everything from communications director (at a time the position was called “press secretary”) to director of the Division of Consumer Protection to head of the department overseeing the state-controlled liquor monopoly.

Along the way, she’s made friends, allies and a few enemies — some of them powerful political or business figures.

Giani had a long-running knockdown, drag-out battle of wills with entrepreneur Rick Koerber, once known as the “Free Capitalist,” who after years of investigations and prosecutions is now serving a 14-year federal prison term on fraud charges for running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

Giani began pressing for the real estate investor’s civil prosecution in 2004 but was stonewalled by then-Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who said he couldn’t make a case. Koerber also persuaded a state lawmaker in 2005 to petition then-Gov. Jon Huntsman to fire Giani.

Instead, she kept her position and took her evidence against Koerber to federal prosecutors, who, after many years, one dismissal and a mistrial, made the charges stick.

Herbert kept her on the job when he took over the governor’s office from Huntsman and even called on her to take on double duties as interim director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to clean up a scandal involving multiple agency leaders accused of taking gifts and self-dealing.

While she won praise for bringing more transparency and accountability to the state’s liquor agency, she also was criticized by some employees.

Brett Clifford, the man credited with building Utah’s premium wine program into a national success story, resigned in protest of what he said were Giani’s strong-arm tactics that demoralized staff and made cuts harmful to the department’s mission.

In a letter to the editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, he called her management style “abusive," saying employees were falsely accused and interrogated and many forced out unfairly.

Giani defended her actions and generally won praise from the Capitol. Others marvel at her survival skills, given that she has never been one to keep her head down.

“Francine is straight up and straightforward,” said Stephen Mecham, a friend and fellow alumnus from the administration of Gov. Norm Bangerter.

While she can be a compassionate person, “she can be very tough,” Mecham said. “That’s how she’s done so well in every position she’s held.

“To weather all the storms she did, it is pretty amazing.”

It a prepared statement Friday, Giani said she told the governor this week that, “who would have thought that a kid from Queens, New York, would have all the wonderful opportunities afforded to me to lead such a great career with the best team at the Department of Commerce.”

Former Tribune columnist Paul Rolly remembers Giani from her first days in state government as Bangerter’s press secretary.

“She had almost zero experience, a young kid who came out from New York,” Rolly recalled. “She started out pretty rocky — not a great relationship with the press when tough questions were asked.”

The retired columnist remembers writing a story about the exorbitant cost of a summit that Bangerter held at a posh Utah resort with business leaders and others, away from inquisitive reporters but on the public’s dime.

Giani was livid.

“There was a period where she wouldn’t talk to me,” he recalled.

But they both got over it, and she became one of the more reliable government spokespeople and was someone whose honesty reporters counted on.

“She grew into that job” and the others she assumed through the years, Rolly said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Francine.”

Giani described her 35-year state government career as "an incredible ride and I will always cherish the people who believed in me and allowed me to serve our great state.”

Editor’s noteFormer Gov. Jon Huntsman is a brother of Tribune owner and Publisher Paul Huntsman.

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