Former Idaho transportation head sues over firing

AP News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2009 6:56 PM

The former head of the Idaho Transportation Department filed a lawsuit Friday against the agency, saying she was fired in a political power play to help Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and his big campaign donors.

The lawsuit in 4th District Court claims Pamela Lowe was fired by the Transportation Department board after refusing to bow to threats by governor's aides not to interfere with a contract originally worth $50 million. The contract benefited URS Corp. and CH2M Hill.

Lowe says Jeff Malmen, the governor's former chief of staff, and Darrell Manning, chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, grew upset after she told the state Legislature in 2007 she would renegotiate the contract so as much of the work as possible was done by the highway agency's own employees.

"Ms. Lowe was repeatedly warned and harassed by the governor's staff and Mr. Manning about taking work away" from the companies, according to her lawsuit. "Ms. Lowe was not deterred by these threats."

The two engineering companies have given the governor at least $22,000 combined since 2005.

After she refused to resign, Lowe was fired in July. The board cited concerns over "improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature."

Lowe succeeded in trimming the contract but claims she was fired this year before she could take virtually all the work back from the companies.

She is seeking back pay, reinstatement or compensation in lieu of that, and attorney's fees, according to her lawsuit. No amount is specified.

Jon Hanian, Otter's spokesman, said, "because this is in litigation, we are unable to comment."

Malmen, now a lobbyist at the Idaho Power Co., didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Manning, who previously has said there wasn't a connection between the contract and Lowe's firing, was out of town and couldn't be reached, the transportation department said.

By law, the Idaho Transportation Board can remove its director for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance and nonfeasance in office."

But Lowe contends she had received satisfactory performance reviews.

Her lawsuit also contends that a bill introduced in the 2009 state Legislature by state Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, was meant "to punish her for cutting CIP's contract." It would have given Otter the power to fire the highway department director.

In a telephone interview, Lowe said agency board members told her they feared McGee's bill would undermine their authority so they relented to pressure to force her out. The board hires the director.

McGee said Friday that he had "a different experience" of what happened but said he can't comment because of the lawsuit.

When he introduced his bill in March, McGee contended he was dissatisfied with Lowe's performance. Some lawmakers also said they didn't trust her agency, citing that as one reason for voting against bills like Otter's proposed $61 million gas tax hike during the 2009 session.

Lowe initially lodged a tort claim against Idaho in August, a notification that she was considering a lawsuit. She hasn't heard from the state since then, she said, and filed this new lawsuit Friday to meet a statutory deadline for whistleblower complaints.

Additional claims, including for gender discrimination, will be added to the lawsuit next week, said Erika Birch, Lowe's attorney.

Lowe doesn't think Idaho has made a serious effort to investigate her claim but said she's gotten messages of support from her former employees at the Transportation Department to press ahead in court.

"That's really helped," she said.