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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that Utah Department of Transportation boss John Njord "made a mistake" by politicizing negotiations with a wrongfully fired employee.
"That's wrong. I don't defend the indefensible here," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED Channel 7. But, he said, the issue is already being politicized by others.
Herbert said he spoke with Njord Wednesday about his attempt to force the employee, Denice Graham, to sign a confidential letter telling the state Democratic Party to stop pushing her case.
Graham was fired after being identified as the source of a leak about the winner of the controversial $1 billion-plus I-15 CORE contract. An administrative law judge told the agency to reinstate her after the Career Service Review Board ruled Njord couldn't justify the firing.
"He in fact made a mistake in interjecting politics. He wanted to depoliticize it, (that was) his intent, and all he did was politicize it more," the governor said. However, he said, Njord has not been disciplined.
"The process will go forward and we'll evaluate things in the future and decide what needs to take place, if anything," Herbert said. "He already knows my displeasure."
The governor also said he's asked Jeff Herring, head of the state Department of Human Resources, to oversee the negotiations with Graham going forward. Herbert noted it was his office that initially ordered that the letter be taken off the table.
UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said that Njord has "acknowledged that the letter was a bad idea that made a difficult situation worse. UDOT remains focused on trying to solve this and get her back to work."
Easton said negotiations broke down more than a week ago and a motion is pending before the Career Service Review board about the back pay, legal fees and job duties Graham is seeking.
Herbert said the buck stops with him but he is not a micromanager. He said Njord "is an extraordinary individual, probably one of the best in America when it comes to construction of roads."
The governor said Njord has his confidence "without reservations." He said he did not want to "presuppose the process" but let it play out "and make evaluations at the appropriate time."
Maryann Martindale, executive director of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a political organization that's backed Graham, said it's time now for the governor to let Njord go.
"I think he should fire him. I think he needs to clean house," Martindale said. "Even though the governor has said that, 'I told him he was wrong to do that' and Njord admitted he was wrong to do it, he only did it after he was cornered on it."
The governor pointed out that changes have already been made at UDOT in response to a state audit he ordered in the wake of questions raised two years ago about a connection between his campaign contributions and the I-15 CORE contract.
The audit, which also dealt with the leaked information about the contract, resulted in UDOT losing its ability to quietly settle with losing bidders. The agency had paid out $13 million to the runner-up for the I-15 CORE contract.
Issues surrounding the contract have long been part of the political debate. In 2010, Herbert's Democratic opponent, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, made it the cornerstone of his campaign.
Contributing: John Daley