As an attorney, Lisa Hurtado Armstrong probably expected to participate in long, drawn-out courtroom battles.
But the 14-month legal fight that dominates her time has cast her in the role of client, not lawyer.In February 1997, Hurtado Armstrong was fired from her job as attorney for the Utah Committee of Consumer Services. The Utah Department of Commerce said her job was cut as part of a plan to strengthen the committee's staff. She said her position was eliminated because state officials did not like her politics.
Hurtado Armstrong filed a grievance and hired an attorney. After spending about $12,000 and months of her life on the case, a state Career Service Review Board administrative hearing on the matter started Wednesday and was scheduled to continue through Friday.
During several hours of testimony Wednesday and Thursday, Scott Dansie, Department of Commerce deputy director, said the "work force adjustment plan" he devised was not meant to punish Hurtado Armstrong.
Dansie said he started working on the plan in late November 1996 because he was concerned that the Committee of Consumer Services' staff was not as effective as it could be.
The six-member committee serves as an advocate for Utah's residential, small commercial and agricultural utility users. Hurtado Armstrong was an attorney on its nine-person staff, which consists primarily of utility analysts and economists.
As the state moved toward deregulation of telecommunications and electrical industries, Dansie said, he thought the committee would need more technical experts. It did not need its own attorney, because it is represented by the state Attorney General's Office, he said.
"We determined that the resources were most needed to hire an additional economist with utility experience," Dansie said.
Dansie denied that the elimination of Hurtado Armstrong's job had anything to do with her opposition to Gov. Mike Leavitt's nomination of Lorena Riffo to serve as the committee's administrative secretary.
When asked whether he talked to other government officials about eliminating Hurtado Armstrong's position in order to get rid of her, Dansie said, "I would never have done that."
But Hurtado Armstrong, who served 10 years with the committee before her firing, says that is exactly what happened.
State officials were not happy with her activities in the Hispanic community, she said. Their unhappiness grew after the Riffo incident, Hurtado Armstrong said, when her comments that the committee needed someone with experience and not just a "yes-person" for the governor showed up in the newspaper.
"I think a lot of (the state's case) is disingenuous," Hurtado Armstrong said Thursday during a break in the hearing.
Hurtado Armstrong found what she calls "substitute employment" as civil rights coordinator for the Utah Department of Transportation after she was fired. But she said she will continue to pursue her case, even if the result of this hearing goes against her and she has to move her battle to the courtroom.