SALT LAKE CITY — A state worker who said she was made a scapegoat over the I-15 bid controversy has been asked to report back to work Monday.
The Utah Department of Transportation decided not to appeal a ruling that found the firing of employee Denice Graham was not justified. On Thursday, she said she was relieved, but admitted she was also a bit apprehensive about returning after a year.
"I’m looking forward to being able to have more than a couple of hours of sleep at night," she said with a laugh, "from the worry about whether we’re going to be able to make ends meet or not."
She will return as the civil rights manager, the position she had before being fired. UDOT also owes her a year’s salary for the time since she was dismissed last April. The lost wages, she said, will go toward paying loans, bills and legal fees.
She said things have been very hard over the past year and her family put their lives on hold. She said she was ready to put the case behind her and move forward.
UDOT spokesman Adan Carrillo said the agency was ready to move on as well. “We decided it’s best for the department and taxpayers to not put on a drawn out legal fight with this decision,” he said. “We’re expecting her to show up to work on Monday of next week.”
Top UDOT management accused Graham of leaking information about who won the I-15 CORE project contract in December 2009. She was fired more than a year later, after a state audit was completed, for disclosing confidential information to a contractor in violation of an agreement she signed.
“I basically had just a few minutes to gather a few personal items and be escorted out,” she said of her firing.
She challenged her termination. “I felt really confident that I hadn’t violated any policies and that I hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said.
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."
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 were released.
“There were others that were involved and accepted responsibility for the errors (that) ended up being promoted,” Graham said. “I got caught up in something just simply because I was low man on the totem pole and was the easiest one to be expendable.”
She said she felt vindicated and that she’ll be able to go back to work and continue to do her work. “I’m really glad that I stood up for my rights because I wanted to show people that if you’re right then it doesn’t matter the cost,” she said. "You need to stand up for your rights to let especially city hall or big government know that you’re not afraid to stand up for what’s right.”
While she won her job back, she said, “You win, but you really don’t win. And I think that that discourages a lot of people from standing up for what’s right and instead just walk away. But I was determined I wasn’t going to do that.”