Denice Graham is back at work in the Utah Department of Transportation after being summarily sacked by administrators who accused her of leaking confidential information about a bid for a $1.1 billion contract to rebuild a stretch of Interstate 15.
The loss of the job sent Graham and her husband into a spiral of crushing debt. But for the help of family, they would have lost their home. They couldn't afford Christmas and birthday presents and took advantage of their stored food. Bereft of unemployment insurance, Graham applied for hundreds of jobs and never got an offer.
When the truth came out about a botched bidding process, $13 million in compensation to a construction company and big bucks from the winning bidder to Gov. Gary Herbert's re-election campaign, only one person Graham was blamed.
But in February, the state's Career Service Review Office issued a scathing ruling that UDOT Executive Director John Njord's firing of Graham "exceeded the bounds of reasonableness and rationality and amounts to an abuse of discretion."
Now, though, Graham and her attorney are working on restoring the salary and benefits she was denied during her year without work. But UDOT has been recalcitrant, and Graham's attorney, Brad Bearnson, said they'll be going back to the review office to seek an order of reimbursement.
"From our perspective, UDOT was just trying to take advantage," he said. "I think they're going to lose."
The back pay isn't the only thing that didn't go Graham's way.
Under the ruling, she was supposed to resume her duties as UDOT's civil rights manager. She's got the title, but has been working in its research division doing "clerical type duties," she said.
"It's awkward. The employees have been great, people have been nice," she added. "I'm making the best of it."
Still, she said, "My expertise is not in that area … it's totally outside my career field."
Her previous work involved making sure contractors were treating and paying their employees fairly, investigating discrimination and wage issues and making sure subcontractors were paid fairly and on time.
"I loved it. I really liked helping people who didn't know how to deal. I'm disappointed," Graham said. "I got a lot of calls from people who are looking forward to me coming back."
Now, Graham was accused of leaking "confidential" information that wasn't actually confidential. A bidder on the I-15 project had called to find out whether a competitor had won the bid, and Graham went to a UDOT website and gave the caller the names of the top three contenders.
Nothing was said about it at the time, and Graham kept working. It turned out that Provo River Constructors had won the bid, but irregularities in the contract and threatened litigation prompted UDOT to pay Flatiron Construction$13 million to compensate its bid expenses.
Meantime, Herbert's campaign had accepted $87,500 from members of Provo River Constructors.
All hell broke loose. Herbert insisted on a state audit, which found many policy problems at UDOT and faulty handling of the contract process.
Only Graham took the fall.
But she's a fighter. As she put it, "What kind of civil rights manager would I be if I didn't?"
Still, it's frustrating.
Normally, a finding of innocence means the firing never happened, and the employee is entitled to full reimbursement for lost pay. Graham is having to pay a private attorney to get her the justice she deserves.
"My taxpayer money and yours is being used by [UDOT], and I have to pay my own," she said. "There's something wrong with that picture."
There certainly is, and John Njord who makes $229,393 a year should be held accountable and use department money to pay her legal fees.
After all, it wouldn't be even close to $13 million.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter: @Peg McEntee.