UDOT, wrongly fired employee at odds over new duties, back pay

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 8:33 p.m. MDT

Denice Graham

Eric Betts, Deseret News

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TOOELE — The Utah Department of Transportation has given its civil rights manager her job back after a state board found she had been wrongfully fired.

But so far it hasn't agreed to restore her back pay.

"I feel like I'm being punished," Denice Graham said. "Even though I won, I haven't won."

Graham is now back to work at UDOT, with the title of "civil rights manager." But she's actually doing work as a "research analyst," and her old duties were divided up and given to two other people.

UDOT insisted it's not payback. "We interpreted that (the Career Service Review Board ruling) that we just need to give (her) the job title," said UDOT spokesman Nile Easton.  "The responsibilities, the job didn't exist anymore."

After Graham was fired from her post as UDOT's civil rights manager, she said she's struggled to make ends meet, working as a substitute teacher.

Earlier this year, a state board found top UDOT management essentially abused their discretion when they fired her in the wake of 2010's I-15 CORE contract controversy. The Career Service Review Board told UDOT to hire her back.

She thought that meant the exact same position. "They put me in an engineering office. I'm not an engineer," Graham said. "There's no advancement opportunity for me there. There's no opportunity to further my career working in a strictly engineering office."

Easton said UDOT divided her old job up two weeks before the ruling, giving it to two people to meet the needs of a department where the manager post was vacant. He said the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter indicating the restructuring did comply with federal law.

Easton insisted the decision was not retribution for Graham challenging her firing. "No, because at the time, we were assuming anyways that we would be winning the case," he said.

Graham estimates the agency owes her in the range of $100,000 for back pay on her $60,000 salary, health insurance she had to purchase the year after she was fired and legal fees.

So far, UDOT has not agreed. But its spokesman insisted they've tried to be reasonable.

"We have essentially capitulated to every demand she's had," Easton said, "except putting her back into that actual position."

Easton said Graham's new duties carry the same salary she had before.

Graham said UDOT's actions amounted to a further penalty, after she'd already been singled out. She said she'd be made "a scapegoat once" with "punishment twice."

Now, Graham and her attorney plan to go back to the state's Career Service Review Board to seek clarification about just what UDOT must do regarding her position, back pay and legal fees.

Her firing came in the fallout of a news report before the November 2010 election that UDOT quietly paid the losing bidder for the I-15 CORE project in Utah County a $13 million settlement over a dispute involving the bid process. That revelation fueled questions about the influence campaign contributions to Gov. Gary Herbert had on the awarding of state contracts. The Herbert campaign accepted some $82,500 in contributions from members of the winning I-15 CORE bidder, Provo River Constructors.

In response to the controversy, Herbert ordered an audit of UDOT, which was released in April 2011. Auditors couldn't find documentation to support the $13 million settlement. They recommended that UDOT take measures to prevent either actual or perceived conflicts of interests or breaches of confidentiality. Graham was fired after the audit was released.

She challenged her termination, saying she "felt really confident that I hadn’t violated any policies and that I hadn’t done anything wrong.”

In February, the state's Career Service Review Office agreed, finding that she had been praised for her work and that she was not the source of a leak about the dispute and didn't give any confidential information to project bidders. It found UDOT's decision to fire her "exceeded the bounds of reasonableness and rationality and amounts to an abuse of discretion."

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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