SALT LAKE CITY — A fired state worker says the Utah Department of Transportation made her a "scapegoat" for the controversy that erupted involving the $13 million settlement paid to the losing bidder of the billion-dollar I-15 CORE contract.

Top UDOT management had accused Denice Graham, the agency's civil rights manager, of leaking information about who won the contract in December 2009. She was fired more than a year later, after a state audit detailed problems with the handling of the bid process.

But the state's Career Service Review Office ruled last week that the firing wasn't justified and reasons Executive Director John Njord gave for firing Graham were "not supported by substantial evidence."

"I'm very happy that the truth prevailed in this case and justice was done," Graham said.

UDOT disagreed with ruling.  "She signed a confidentiality agreement," UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said Thursday. "We felt she broke that confidentiality agreement, and that alone, for us, is a terminable offense."

Shortly before the November 2010 election, the Deseret News and KSL broke the story 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 results of the audit were released.

"I think UDOT was put in a position where somebody had to answer in the audit … somebody had to answer for what happened," Graham said.  "I just happened to be the unfortunate one who fell in that position."

Graham said she was "very shocked" by her firing "because I was employed there 11 years. I had never done anything wrong. I had an exemplary record."

Graham was part of a team reviewing bids for the massive CORE construction project in December 2009, when she received a phone call from Lori Wadsworth, of Wadsworth Brothers Construction, a member of Provo River Constructors, one of three consortiums bidding for the contract. Wadsworth asked Graham to confirm "word on the street" that a rival contractor, Flatiron, had won the bid.

Graham checked an internal UDOT website (known as PDBS) and saw Flatiron was at the top of the bid listing, but the career service review report states "it was not an accurate ranking of the bid award."

UDOT said roughly "12 to 15" people had access to the PDBS web page. But hearing officer Dennis Mangrum wrote "UDOT did not control access" to the web page and it was actually "available to an unknown number of people, many of whom were not even employed by UDOT."

Therefore, Mangrum found, Graham didn't disclose information that "could in fairness be classified as confidential."

Mangrum concluded UDOT's decision to fire her Graham "exceeded the bounds of reasonableness and rationality and amounts to an abuse of discretion."     

Graham calls the decision a vindication. After losing the job, which paid a $60,000 salary, she's been working as a substitute teacher.

"It's been a very hard year," Graham said. "To lose whole salary in your household and not having any prospects of being able to obtain employment has been really hard."

UDOT's options include filing an appeal, reaching a legal settlement, or hiring Graham back, something Graham said she'd consider, if offered.

The agency has 30 days to appeal.