November 5, 2009 in Idaho, News

Ousted Idaho roads chief blames political cronyism

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Fired Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe says she was forced out after refusing to send unnecessary state work and money to politically connected companies.

Lowe, who was fired July 31, is filing a wrongful termination suit against the state Friday. The filing comes after the state failed to respond to Lowe’s tort claim, which alleged sexual discrimination and political cronyism. The head of the Idaho Transportation Board disputed the allegations contained in the tort claim.

“I filed that tort claim in good conscience and in good faith, looking for answers and looking for resolution,” Lowe told The Spokesman-Review, “and was disappointed that they chose not to respond in any way, at least yet. And I’m left with no choice but to file this lawsuit.”

Lowe was the first woman to head Idaho’s transportation department; she’s a professional engineer and a 15-year employee of the department. Since her firing July 31, she’s been job-hunting, so far without success.

“I have come to the conclusion … that this had nothing to do with my performance as director,” Lowe said. “It did have to do with a political situation, and it had to do with protection of political turf. I believe that the governor and Sen. (John) McGee were focused on protecting their political contributors, and that specifically was the Connecting Idaho Partners contract,” or CIP, a large construction-management contract. “I was very focused on saving money and cutting that contract back.”

Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said he won’t comment on the case because it’s in litigation. McGee, R-Caldwell, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the same. Both public officials received substantial campaign contributions from the companies involved in the contract and their top executives.

The management contract was first envisioned at $50 million over 10 years to oversee the state’s biggest-ever highway project; it’s since been scaled back. The contract was reduced to $30.8 million in June of 2008, and further reductions are now being negotiated.

Lowe says the governor’s then-chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, called her and ITD Board Chairman Darrell Manning into a meeting in February 2007 after she told lawmakers she planned to trim back the contract.

“Malmen was quite upset during this meeting,” Lowe said. “We’re talking shaking, red-faced, upset, angry about this CIP contract.”

After the meeting, Lowe said, Manning asked her for a list of all ITD contracts, “so he could ask the governor’s office which ones they wanted to be involved with.” Manning said he did not recall asking for such a list. “I get the contracts as they’re let,” he said. The request for the list is one of the new allegations in a complaint that Lowe’s attorneys plan to file in 4th District Court today. Attorney Erika Birch said the initial legal complaint must be filed today due to a statute of limitations on one of the claims, a “whistleblower” claim about the contract issue.

The state has 90 days to respond to Lowe’s tort claim; the 90 days are up on Tuesday. Birch said once Tuesday has come and gone, she’ll file an amended complaint adding in all the claims, which include legal and constitutional claims that Lowe was fired without legal grounds and despite excellent performance reviews; that she was discriminated against because she’s a woman; and that she was denied a hearing on her firing.

The initial complaint, which Lowe provided to The Spokesman-Review, also charges that Manning urged Lowe, during a closed Transportation Board executive session, to expand the CIP contract to also cover huge highway projects that are being funded this year with federal stimulus money; and that the board made a deal with McGee to fire Lowe in return for his dropping proposed legislation that would have given the governor, rather than the board, power to hire and fire the state transportation director.

Manning disputed both those claims.

Lowe said Manning’s suggestion to expand the giant management contract came at a January 2009 board executive session, where she said no such expansion was needed because ITD could handle the new projects in-house. “I was clear that we had them ready to go,” she said. “We didn’t need any help. So I was left with the impression that he was just trying to get CIP more work.”

Manning said, “I don’t interfere in how they do that – that’s not my job. … I don’t monitor what the districts’ workloads are; that’s her job, the director.”

On the legislation, Manning said, “My only dealing on that with Sen. McGee is I asked him not to push the bill, because I didn’t agree with the policy change. I also asked several other senators and representatives the same.”

Lowe said Transportation Board members were very worried about McGee’s bill.

“I believe that the board’s reason for asking for my resignation and terminating me was they were fearful of McGee’s bill. They did not want to lose their ability to … appoint the director. They were protecting their political turf, and McGee introduced that bill because he and the governor did not want me cutting that CIP contract.”

At the same time that Lowe said the governor’s office was pressuring her not to cut back the management contract, the Legislature’s joint budget committee was backing the move, and even wrote it into the department’s budget as a requirement.

“I didn’t want to give that consultant money just to give them money, that we could’ve put on the road, building projects somewhere,” Lowe said. Legislators who were encouraging the cutbacks, she said, “weren’t aware that there was pressure from another branch to not do that.” She said, “I certainly didn’t tell them.”

Lowe said she’s concerned about the situation facing the next ITD director, who is now being recruited. “I think that the way my termination was handled is going to leave them walking on eggshells,” she said.

Lowe’s initial complaint seeks back pay, reinstatement or additional pay, and costs and attorney’s fees.


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