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Controversial multimillion-dollar contract at center of ITD firing dispute

Fired ITD Director Pam Lowe says in her wrongful-firing tort claim that she was ousted just as she prepared to cut back or eliminate a multimillion-dollar contract with a politically well-connected firm, after strong pressure from the governor’s office not to do it. But the Legislature actually directed her to do just that - she was following the law. Lawmakers wanted to save money. The directive was included in “legislative intent language,” a type of strings attached to the department’s budget that has the full force of law. It first was imposed in 2007; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com, including Lowe’s account, in her tort claim, of how Jeff Malmen, then chief of staff for Gov. Butch Otter, called her on the carpet over her plan.

“The desire expressed by the budget committee was to try to bring as much work as possible in-house to reduce costs,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Where we could put more money on the roads, it makes sense to me to do that. … It just seemed that if we had the capacity within ITD to do the work in-house, that we should do that.”

The management contract has been controversial from the start. Washington Group is a generous funder of Idaho political campaigns, and, as Lowe’s tort claim noted, a significant contributor to the campaigns of both Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell. According to state campaign finance records, Otter has received $21,000 in contributions from Washington Group since 2005, and $1,000 from CH2M Hill. McGee received $1,500 from Washington Group. In addition, top executives from both firms gave Otter another $11,500 and McGee another $900, according to state records.

The consortium, dubbed “Connecting Idaho Partners,” won the giant contract in 2005 only after a big fight. An ITD evaluation team unanimously selected the competing bidder, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff and HDR Engineering. The New York firm had handled similar state highway programs for numerous other states. But the ITD board voted 4-1 to pick the local bidder instead, with only the late Bruce Sweeney, who died last week, dissenting. Parsons Brinckerhoff sued and the Federal Highway Administration warned Idaho that local preference can’t be considered under federal contract rules. ITD redid the bidding process, and again awarded the contract to the same firms.

Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, too, was a recipient of significant campaign donations from Washington Group, which gave more than $18,000 to his re-election campaigns and $10,000 to the Idaho Republican Party. Kempthorne’s staffer who handled the issue, Lance Giles, later worked as a registered lobbyist for the firm, and his former chief of staff, Phil Reberger, was one of Washington Group’s paid consultants on the project. When the contract first was signed, then-ITD Board Chairman Frank Bruneel decried its size and said it should be scaled back. “That would be very disappointing to me if we spent that kind of money,” Bruneel said then. “We have manpower to provide a lot of these services, and it’ll be the board’s policy and intention to do those things in-house where we have the resources available.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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