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SALT LAKE CITY — A jury decided Friday that Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, wrongfully terminated her executive assistant in January 2013.
The 3rd District Court jury entered a finding Friday of $240,000 in total damages against Giani, the commerce department and the state of Utah, all of whom are listed as defendants in the case.
The ordeal began because Giani mistrusted executive assistant Rebekah Conner, whose husband was a special agent with the Utah Attorney General's Office, court documents say. The attorney general's office had complained to the governor's office about the commerce department disrupting an investigation into some businesses.
Conner sued Giani and the commerce department in October 2013, alleging that Giani deliberately violated Utah employee protection laws after firing her on Jan. 9, 2013, by denying Conner severance benefits. Giani claimed that Conner had quit and was not fired, according to the complaint.
The jury verdict Friday concluded that Giani wrongfully fired Conner due to her "political affiliation."
"Giani continued with conduct that was not only intentional, but in knowing violation of Utah law when she refused to allow the (Utah) Department of Commerce to pay severance benefits mandated by statute and administrative rule," the complaint reads.
Giani was tending to important family matters Saturday and was unavailable for comment, said Tom Brady, deputy director of the Utah Department of Commerce.
"It's our understanding there will be oral arguments in front of Judge (Matthew) Bates … that could render much of this moot," Brady said, referring to the civil lawsuit.
Brady declined to elaborate and said the department had no further comment.
A motion hearing before Bates is scheduled for Sept. 26.
Bates previously denied a motion from Giani and the Utah Department of Commerce that claimed Conner had "committed acts of impropriety" during her employment.
According to court documents, the attorney general's office was about to conduct a raid on multiple businesses in November 2012 when a Utah Department of Commerce employee, working in the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, "delivered a citation to one of the business(es) the A.G.'s office was about to serve."
"That business alerted the other similar businesses," court documents say. "The A.G.'s operation was abruptly called off because it had lost the element of surprise."
Conner's husband had been in communication with that commerce department employee, who was a friend of his, shortly before the allegedly botched sting. The two friends had learned that each other's agencies were investigating "the same type of businesses" prior to the sting being called off that very day, according to court documents.
The attorney general's office later complained to Gov. Gary Herbert's office about the botched sting, laying blame on the commerce department. Giani became angry with Conner because of her husband's connection to the case and his status as a representative of the attorney general's office, the lawsuit claims.
"(Giani) told (Conner) it troubled her that (Conner's) husband worked for the A.G.'s office and expressed how angry it made her that the A.G's office had called the governor's office to complain about the DOPL division. … (Giani) said she was not sure she could trust (Conner), and she did not want to have to watch what she said around (Conner)," court documents state. "She said she wondered whether (Conner) was part of a plan at the A.G's office to get (Giani) fired."
An administrative law judge ruled Conner was entitled to nearly $15,000 in total severance benefits, but Giani refused to pay Conner even after that ruling became a final order, according to the complaint.
"As a direct result of Giani's refusal to pay these benefits, Conner lost her health insurance coverage and was not in a position to obtain medical care to address the emotional fallout from Giani's conduct and public firing," the lawsuit states.
Conner and Giani had a disagreement following Giani's meeting with other agency directors about the botched sting operation, court documents claim.
"(Giani) said it made her too uncomfortable knowing (Conner) was married to 'one of them,'" court documents read. "She said it was not going to work, and that was just the way it was."
Conner left the office after turning over her badge and stating, "OK, then, here's my badge and with it my loyalty," according to the lawsuit.
Giani followed Conner out of the office, demanding to know if Conner was threatening her, court documents say. A human resources worker was called in to shut down Conner's computer and escort her to her car.
Conner claimed she was "humiliated" by the "loud, public" firing. The complaint also contends that the administrative law judge found the firing to be unnecessary because Conner "was simply caught in the middle of an acrimonious association" between the commerce department and attorney general's office.
The lawsuit sought compensatory, punitive and general damages. It's unclear from verdict documents how much of the awarded $240,000 fell under each of those categories, except that $30,000 of the total was identified as "noneconomic damages."
Former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who was still serving at the time that his agency complained to the governor's office about the Department of Commerce, praised the verdict Saturday. Responding to the Deseret News' report on Twitter, Shurtleff wrote: "Finally! Francine Giani is held accountable for abuses." He included the hashtag #tipoftheiceburg.
Public corruption charges against Shurtleff were dismissed last month by prosecutors, who cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding bribery and an inability to obtain key evidence from a federal investigation as reasons. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @benlockhartnews