UDOT employee wrongfully terminated over supposed leak, ruling says

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A fired Utah Department of Transportation worker says the agency made her a "scapegoat" for the huge controversy that erupted involving the $13 million settlement paid to the losing bidder of the billion-dollar I-15 CORE contract. A state review board found that she was wrongfully terminated.

Top UDOT management had accused Denice Graham of leaking information about who won that contract. But a state review board found that wasn't the case, and the firing wasn't justified.

The revelation regarding the $13 million award became the issue in the 2010 race for governor and led to a state audit taking UDOT to task. Last April, after the audit, UDOT told Denise Graham, who was the agency's Civil Rights Manager at the time, that she was fired.

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

I was very shocked because I was employed there 11 years. I had never done anything wrong. I had an exemplary record.

–Denice Graham

UDOT says she'd been fired for disclosing confidential information to a contractor in violation of an agreement she signed. But Graham challenged her termination.

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

According to the Career Service Review Office report, regarding Graham's work record, Executive Director John Njord testified that Graham "was a good employee." Hearing Officer Dennis Mangrum wrote, "she has never been disciplined in the past but has only been praised for her work."

Now the State Career Service Review Office has ruled she was wrongfully terminated 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."

"We strongly disagree with that ruling," said Nile Easton, a UDOT spokesman. "We feel we did have cause to let her go. We have that she signed a confidentiality agreement, we feel she broke that confidentiality agreement, and that alone, for us, is a terminable offense."

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

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

UDOT's options at this point include filing an appeal, hiring Graham back, or reaching a legal settlement. The agency has 30 days to appeal.

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John Daley


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