July 18, 2011 in Idaho

Former ITD chief secretly fired, given ‘graceful’ exit

John Miller Associated Press
 

ITD leader quit in 2006 after employee complaint

By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former Idaho Transportation Department director was asked to resign in 2006 after a scathing whistleblower complaint, a detail hidden from the public until it recently emerged in court documents filed as part of a separate lawsuit.

The papers, filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday, show the circumstances of how former director David Ekern exited the state’s top highway agency job in August 2006.

Ekern announced that month that he was leaving after 3½ years to pursue “two potentially significant career opportunities.” He later took a job in Virginia that he quit in 2010.

But the Idaho Transportation Board had previously voted in executive session to remove him after an internal complaint in March 2006 alleged Ekern engaged in favoritism and “misuse of power and authority.” The board then gave Ekern an opportunity to leave of his own accord, the court documents show.

“The Board was dissatisfied with his performance and he should look for other employment,” according to the documents. “Chairman Frank Bruneel told Mr. Ekern that they would give him the opportunity to gracefully leave ITD. There was a general agreement that Mr. Ekern could leave basically in good standing if he voluntarily retired. Shortly after this discussion, Mr. Ekern submitted his retirement letter.”

Former Transportation Director Pamela Lowe filed the documents last week in her ongoing bid to convince a federal court judge she was illegally fired in 2009.

She was fired despite good job reviews after Idaho Transportation Board members raised concerns about her rapport with some Idaho lawmakers; Lowe blames her dismissal on a backlash after she began trimming a highway management contract with a big political donor, URS Corp.

In the documents filed last week in federal court, Lowe’s attorneys contend Ekern survived in his position for months despite poor reviews and complaints against him because he enjoyed employment protections that she was denied prior to her own dismissal.

“The Board approved payment of another $20,000 to $25,000 when Mr. Ekern raised concerns about the way he had been treated,” wrote Erika Birch, Lowe’s attorney. “This treatment does not typically comport with how an employer treats” an employee that can be fired at will.

Five years ago, Ekern was the subject of intense scrutiny in the Capitol.

It was largely due to anger among some legislators for Ekern’s role in helping then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne pass a law allowing Idaho to go into debt to fund highway projects as part of the state’s $1 billion “Connecting Idaho” bonding program.

The legislators complained that Ekern misled them, while a separate study resulting from interviews with 60 agency employees — obtained in 2006 through an Associated Press public records request — concluded there were problems with communication, morale and concern over the state agency’s direction.

Still, officials sought to downplay the situation at the time. Darrell Manning, the Transportation Board’s current chairman and the person who conducted the 60 interviews, told the AP, “I’m not saying there is a negative environment.”

Manning’s characterization, however, contrasts starkly with the March 2006 whistleblower complaint.

In it, ITD human resources director Mary Harker had this to say: “Having been in human resources for over 20 years, that when an organization becomes as toxic as ITD appears to be, extreme measures are necessary.”

Among other things, Harker alleged a “punitive leadership and disrespect and distrust of staff” and “ever increasing requests for medical leave, particularly for mental health issues, and management had dramatically increased disciplinary actions against employees.”

According to Lowe’s lawyers, “Based upon his review, Mr. Manning concluded that many of Ms. Harker’s concerns appeared valid.”

Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten wasn’t privy to any action taken by the Idaho Transportation Board in executive session. Stratten told the AP on Monday that Ekern informed him in August 2006 only that he was resigning to pursue job opportunities elsewhere and didn’t give any other circumstances of his departure.

A phone message left at a telephone number registered to Ekern in Ashland, Va., wasn’t immediately returned.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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