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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's former director of black affairs found the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission event she helped organize bittersweet Friday because she says she lost her job over it.
Debra Charleston said the Utah Department of Transportation fired her Wednesday, two days after her supervisor Bryan Adams asked her in "casual conservation" about her role in the luncheon featuring U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. She said she told him she was the event coordinator.
"His facial expression was unreal," she said. "You could tell he was upset "
Charleston, who is black, said she believes her firing was racially motivated. "It just seems suspect to me," she said.
UDOT denies the termination was racially motivated. But department spokeswoman Tania Mashburn acknowledged "it's very bad timing, extremely bad timing. I really don't think they thought about it."
Charleston was fired due to poor performance, Mashburn said. She worked as the UDOT civil rights manager, a federal job in which she helped minority- or female-owned businesses navigate the government contract process.
"It was solely based on job-related and performance issues," Mashburn said. Charleston, she said, had difficulty with the technical aspects of her job and Adams met her in September or October to go over her job duties.
The state's black affairs director for five years, Charleston started at UDOT about six months ago and was still on standard yearlong probation for new employees.
"I was hired based on my managerial experience, not my technical experience," Charleston said.
UDOT, she said, knew her background and her job as black affairs director often involved organizing community events.
Charleston said she never received technical training because her supervisor was out of the office for the first three months she worked at UDOT.
Mashburn said Adams knew from day one that Charleston was working on the Holder event and allowed her to take personal time to do it.
"He had no problem with it," she said. "That was never an issue."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff publicly lauded Charleston's efforts Friday before introducing Holder at the luncheon and added that she's "under some personally trying days." Shurtleff, who worked with Charleston to bring Holder to Utah, said she guided he foundation through late notice of Holder's visit and a last-minute venue change.
Afterward, Shurtleff said he's "concerned" and "disappointed" about her firing. He called her an "extraordinary" state employee.
"I don't know what the issues are with her at the department of transportation, but we'll find out," he said. "I'll support her regardless of what happens."
Charleston received a termination letter from UDOT outlining the reasons for her firing, but she said she's not ready to make it public. UDOT would not provide it without her permission.
Charleston said she is considering filing a grievance with the state or taking legal action. "I plan to explore all opportunities that are available to me," she said.
Even though her firing detracted from Holder's visit, Charleston said she wanted to concentrate on the positive.
"I feel like we're in 2012," she said. "It is my hope that things change."