BOISE – Fired Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe has scored a significant victory in her politically charged wrongful-firing case: U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush ruled that Lowe wasn’t an “at will” employee who could be dismissed without cause.
Lowe contends she was fired because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she’s a woman.
Lowe was the first woman to head the Idaho Transportation Department; she since has been replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.
The judge’s ruling, issued Saturday, opens the way for consideration of the gender-bias and political pressure claims.
“I am absolutely elated,” Lowe said Monday. “It absolutely vindicated me and what I had been saying.”
Lowe has contended that she had received positive evaluations of her work, both formally and in comments from the Idaho Transportation board.
Then in 2009, a multimillion-dollar contract with two Idaho firms to oversee major bonded highway construction projects across the state was being cut back; the lead firm, URS, formerly Washington Group, was a big donor to Gov. Butch Otter’s election campaigns, as well as to the campaign of John McGee, then-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
McGee introduced legislation that year to strip the Idaho Transportation Board of the ability to hire and fire the director, though the bill didn’t pass.
Lowe said the governor’s chief of staff pressured her not to reduce the contract, and McGee’s bill was in response to her move.
“He was interested in helping his campaign contributors,” Lowe said, “and I didn’t want to do what he wanted done with that contract, which was to throw a bunch more money at them that didn’t need to happen, and he ran that bill to strip the board of their powers.”
She added, “the board succumbed to political blackmail and pressure from John McGee when he ran that bill.”
McGee, who resigned from the Senate this year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from a female Senate staffer, couldn’t be reached for comment.
“I had more than one board member tell me that it was McGee and it was blackmail,” she said. “They had no reason other than pure politics to terminate me.”
She added, “It was certainly not one of the four reasons that the judge has said needed to happen in order for a proper termination to occur.”
The 1974 law creating the Idaho Transportation Department director’s position says, “The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”
The department didn’t cite any of the four reasons from the law in firing Lowe, instead citing her relationship with the Legislature.
In a prepared statement Monday, ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “The department is disappointed in the ruling and will consider an appeal.”
Lowe started work a month ago as financial director for the state Department of Transportation in Delaware but is commuting from her Boise home after 2 1/2 years of unemployment. She’s seeking reinstatement in her job at ITD, where she’d worked since 1993, along with back pay and benefits, attorney fees and damages.