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An employee at the Utah Department of Transportation was wrongly terminated by management who accused her of leaking information about who won the $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 through Utah County.

Denice Graham was not the source of the leak and did not pass any confidential information to bidders on the project, the Career Service Review Office has ruled.

The ruling is the latest twist in a saga that began with a badly mishandled billion-dollar contract, a quiet $13 million settlement, and improper relationships between a contractor and UDOT employees that shook the department and the Governor's Office.

"Really, I think why she was fired was UDOT [and director] John Njord got raked over the coals for this $13 million settlement," said Graham's attorney, Brad Bearnson. "It was a mess. Ultimately, the reason she was fired was someone needed to be fired."

Graham had spent eight years as UDOT's civil-rights officer, but was terminated in the aftermath of a scandal over the road contract and allegations of preferential treatment for donors to Gov. Gary Herbert's campaign.

The Career Service Review Office, which hears grievances over improper terminations, ordered UDOT to give Graham her job back with back pay for lost wages and benefits.

"We're disappointed with this decision," said UDOT spokesman Nile Easton. "We disagree with it and we are going to meet with our attorneys and explore the appeals process."

The department could choose to appeal the ruling to the Utah Court of Appeals. It could also agree to pay a settlement to Graham rather than re-hire her.

Graham's replacement, Debra Charleston, was also fired by UDOT in January and said her firing was racially motivated. The termination of Charleston, who was former director of black affairs for the state, came as she was organizing the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission luncheon featuring U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Charleston said her supervisor, Bryan Adams, expressed disappointment she was involved with the event and three days later she was fired.

UDOT denied that Charleston's firing had anything to do with her race. Graham, who is Latina, never pointed to race as a possible cause for her dismissal, said Bearnson.

In early 2009, Graham was named to a team reviewing bids for the I-15 CORE project, the largest road project in state history. On Dec. 9, 2009, Graham was contacted by Lori Wadsworth, an officer with Wadsworth Brothers Construction, part of a team bidding for the project, trying to confirm "word on the street" that another consortium, Flatiron Construction, had won the contract.

Graham accessed an internal website that showed Flatiron at the top of the list, but the ranking was irrelevant to the contract awarding. While hundreds of employees and contractors had access to the system for inputting information, only about a dozen had the access required to read the website contents, according to UDOT. Graham's attorney says evidence showed broader access.

As it turned out, the consortium Provo River Constructors, which included Wadsworth Brothers, was awarded the contract, but irregularities in the contract and the threat of litigation prompted UDOT to pay Flatiron $13 million, compensation for their expenses to submit a bid.

No action was taken against Graham for more than a year, until the settlement was revealed during Herbert's gubernatorial bid. His campaign had accepted some $87,500 from Provo River Constructors members.

UDOT's investigation into the leak also uncovered an improper relationship between Guy Wadsworth, president of Wadsworth Brothers, and a high-ranking UDOT employee, a violation of UDOT policy, for which the employee was demoted.

Herbert said he had no knowledge of the bid or the settlement and wrote a letter to Njord citing the irregularities and requesting a state audit.

The audit found numerous problems with policies at UDOT and faulty handling of the contract process.

Graham was fired in the wake of the audit, with Njord alleging that she "went out of [her] way to disclose protected data," and that she "made a deliberate disregard of our polices" in violating a signed confidentiality agreement.

"Neither of these allegations were supported by any evidence," wrote CSRO hearing officer Dennis Mangrum in the opinion last week.

Graham could not have been the source of the leak, because Flatiron had the information first, hours before Graham had access to it. And given the broad number of people who had access to what was a meaningless list, the information could not be considered confidential.

Therefore, firing her without any proof she had violated policies was improper, Mangrum said.

Derek Jensen contributed to this report. —

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O Read the entire ruling by the Career Service Review Office here >

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