Fired worker accepts back pay from UDOT, says issues remain
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 30 2012 05:16PM
The Utah Department of Transportation handed a check Monday afternoon to a worker who was wrongly terminated then reinstated, but the issue still may not be resolved.
UDOT paid Denice Graham more than $43,000 for more than a year of back wages, minus taxes, and has reinstated leave time she had accrued.
"I got my back pay, which I’m very happy that part of it was resolved," said Graham. "But we still have not resolved the legal issues — the legal fees and the job issue."
UDOT Director John Njord fired Graham more than a year ago, accusing her of leaking information on the $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County. But a Career Service Review officer ruled in February that Graham hadn’t released confidential information, called the firing an "abuse of discretion" and ordered her reinstated.
Graham went back to work this month, but had been wrangling over her back pay. In early April, Njord offered to give Graham her back pay if she would write a letter to the Democratic Party requesting that it stop using her case to criticize Gov. Gary Herbert, which Graham refused.
Herbert’s Office opposed that proposal, and Njord later acknowledged it was a bad idea.
Graham accepted the check for $43,515.84 Monday afternoon, which was her $67,623.68 in disputed back pay, minus taxes.
UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said UDOT is handling Graham’s case the same way past cases have been dealt with.
"What we provided today is everything she would have missed out on in the time she was terminated," Easton said. "We feel it’s going above and beyond what the Career Service Review Office has ordered, but we’ll continue to talk to her."
Graham says she has racked up more than $50,000 in legal fees wrangling for more than a year with UDOT — expenses that she said UDOT should have to pay.
However, the Utah Legislature has prohibited the Career Service Review Office, which handles appeals of state terminations, from awarding legal fees.
"I hope we’re able to resolve that without having to go to court, because I am not going to go without my legal fees. Why would I just accept that?" Graham said. "I hope they would step up and resolve it and say, ‘That’s our bill.’ "
Graham also said she has been stuck in an "entry-level" job that doesn’t match her experience or skills. She said she would like a job dealing with labor and civil rights issues — which she handled before — and would be willing to move to another department in state government to make that happen.
The group Alliance For A Better Utah had called on Herbert to fire Njord in the wake of the disclosure and demanded an investigation into the Graham firing and a $13 million payout to a losing bidder on the I-15 contract to avoid litigation.
The group’s director, Maryann Martindale, said the organization is pleased Graham has received her compensation.
"We can only hope that director Njord has also had the decency to privately apologize to Denice for all that she has been through," Martindale said. "But this should not be the end of this matter, and the receipt of a check should not permit Governor Herbert and director Njord to brush so many open questions under the rug."