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Ousted transportation chief claims contract at center of firing

BOISE – Fired Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe says she was ousted just as she prepared to cut back or eliminate a big contract with a well-connected firm, after strong pressure from the governor’s office not to do it.

But the Legislature had directed her to make the cut as a money-saving move.

The intent was 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.

Lowe, whose tort claim against the state alleges sex discrimination, cronyism, political pressure and more in her firing, said in her claim that Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff at the time called her and ITD board Chairman Darrell Manning into a meeting after her 2007 budget presentation to lawmakers. There, the chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, angrily objected to her plan to reduce the multimillion-dollar management contract for the Connecting Idaho highway program held by Washington Group and CH2M Hill under the name Connecting Idaho Partners, or CIP, according to the claim.

“Mr. Malmen was extremely upset and told Ms. Lowe that she should not have said she would renegotiate the CIP contract,” the tort claim says. “Sometime after this meeting, Mr. Manning also told Ms. Lowe that she ‘needed to be careful with CIP,’ and that the ‘Governor could be compromised.’”

Malmen, who is now vice president for public affairs at Idaho Power, didn’t return a call seeking comment, and the governor’s office has declined to comment on the pending legal matter.

Manning said he remembers the meeting, “but I don’t remember that detail.” Malmen was upset at the meeting, Manning said, “but I thought that it was based on ‘don’t surprise the boss.’”

Lawmakers not only agreed with Lowe’s proposal, they wrote it into law.

The management contract was first envisioned at $50 million or more over 10 years, to manage the state’s biggest-ever highway project, a bond-funded program designed to do 30 years worth of highway construction in 10 years. Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne pushed through the legislation authorizing the program in 2005; lawmakers have since scaled it back.

In response to a public records request, ITD reported Wednesday that the contract was reduced to $45.4 million in 2006, was cut back further to $30.8 million in June 2008, and further reductions now are being negotiated to move more of the work in house at ITD.

Jeff Stratten, ITD spokesman, confirmed that the department has been directed by the Legislature and the Transportation Board to “keep in-house as much of the … program as possible.”

Lowe says in her tort claim that negotiations on the contract were scheduled to begin after the 2009 legislative session, but just three days after the session concluded, Manning, the ITD board chairman, asked Lowe to resign, despite positive performance reviews. “The Board terminated her on July 16, 2009 before she had a chance to cut back the CIP contract and eliminate waste of funds,” the claim says.

Manning said, “There are changes that are being made all the time in contracts. … I think they’ve done a good job in what we contracted them to do, as far as I know.”

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. 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 won the giant contract in 2005 only after a 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.

Parsons Brinckerhoff sued and the Federal Highway Administration warned Idaho that local preference can’t be considered under federal contract rules. ITD revised the bidding process and again awarded the contract to the same firms.

Manning noted that he wasn’t on the board when all that happened; it occurred under the previous governor, Kempthorne.

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.

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