Eye On Boise

Pam Lowe's tort claim: Sex discrimination, cronyism at ITD

Fired Idaho Transportation Department director Pamela Lowe is seeking damages from the state, alleging improper termination and gender discrimination, the AP reports. Among her claims: One board member said “no little girl would be able to run this department.” In documents obtained by The Associated Press, Lowe also details a whistleblower claim against the state because she was fired after refusing to give into pressure by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s appointees not to cut a contract held by major campaign donors. Lowe is seeking lost wages, compensatory, emotional distress and punitive damages; read more here at spokesman.com, or click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Ex-ITD chief seeks redress for firing
JOHN MILLER,Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Fired Idaho Transportation Department director Pamela Lowe is seeking damages from the state for improper termination and gender discrimination.

Among her claims: One member of the board that oversees her agency said "no little girl would be able to run this department."

Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning said the claims are without merit. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's aides declined to comment.

In documents obtained by The Associated Press from the Idaho secretary of state, Lowe details a whistleblower claim where she says she was fired after refusing to relent to pressure not to cut a big highway contract that benefited large political contributors to Otter and state Sen. John McGee, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman.

Lowe alleges she was repeatedly told not to trim a $50 million project management contract with road builders Washington Group International and Denver-based CH2M Hill for the $1 billion "Connecting Idaho" highway program. She says pressure came from former Otter chief of staff Jeff Malmen, now an Idaho Power Co. lobbyist, and from Manning, an Otter appointee.

"Ms. Lowe was not deterred by these threats and was determined to do what was in the best interest of the State of Idaho and its citizens," according to her claim.

Lowe, who referred a reporter's questions Thursday to her lawyers, contends she took back several "Connecting Idaho" projects from the companies in 2007 and was in the process of moving all oversight back to the state agency this year when she was warned again by Manning the governor "wouldn't like it."

"The board terminated her on July 16, 2009, before she had a chance to cut back the CIP contract and eliminate waste of funds," according to her claim.

Jon Hanian, an Otter spokesman, said Thursday he couldn't comment on Lowe's claim because it was a legal matter. The claim against the state seeking an unspecified amount of punitive, compensatory and emotional damages plus thousands in lost wages is a precursor to a potential lawsuit.

After the board voted to fire her last month, Manning told reporters her ouster would help "the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature."

On Thursday, Manning said he hasn't had an opportunity to review Lowe's claims in detail, but says his preliminary conclusion is they are without merit.

"There are some things in there that look like selective memory," he said. "I never did talk to the governor about the contracts we deal with, and we deal with a lot of them."

Malmen did not return a phone call for comment late Thursday.

Washington Group International, now a unit of San Francisco-based URS Corp., and CH2M Hill gave Otter $17,000 in contributions in 2005 and 2006, according to the Idaho secretary of state's campaign finance database.

McGee, R-Caldwell, has gotten $1,900 from Washington Group since 2004.

In the 2009 Legislature, a heated session in which Otter and Lowe's agency failed to convince lawmakers to boost the state's gas tax to fund highway projects, her performance was criticized by some lawmakers including McGee. He unsuccessfully pushed a measure to move authority to appoint the highway agency director to the governor from the Transportation Board, where it's been for decades.

Lowe contends this pressure eventually led to her ouster.

"Even though Ms. Lowe's appointment is intended to be shielded form the political whims of elected officials, it's clear that politics played a role here," according to her claim.

McGee declined comment.

"As much as I'd love to, it would be inappropriate," he said Thursday.

Lowe was hired as ITD's first female director in December 2006, a month before Otter took office.

In her gender discrimination claim, she says Transportation Board member Gary Blick said at the time of her hiring "No little girl would be able to run this department" and "What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?"

Blick, of Castleford, Idaho, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Idaho law allows board members to remove a director "for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office."

But Lowe contends her final 2008 board performance review concluded she "achieves solid sustained performance."

"Nonetheless, on May 11, 2009, Board Chairman Mr. Manning asked Ms. Lowe for her resignation," the claim reads. "He told her that ITD was in good shape, that she was doing a good job running the department, but that there was some unhappiness with her political relationships."

Lowe refused to go willingly, asking instead for a meeting with the board on why she was being asked to resign.

"Mr. Manning and the other Board members stated that although she was performing well, some politicians were concerned with Ms. Lowe's leadership," the claim continues. "Beyond these vague statements, she was not provided with specifics."


Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.




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