Friday, August 31, 2012

Picking up the tab for arrogance

Terms of a settlement between the state of Idaho and former Transportation Director Pam Lowe were released last week. She sued the state after she was fired more than two years ago.

One of the settlement terms was that that the parties wouldn’t disparage one another. Neither of the parties needs to say a word. The matters involved in the suit are disparaging enough.

Lowe, an engineer, claimed she was fired wrongfully after she refused to quit pressuring politically connected companies to reduce costs on multi-million-dollar highway projects.

She won the first round when a lower court found that she was not an “at will” employee and that the state could not fire her for any reason or no reason at all. After that decision, the state came to the bargaining table.

Idaho agreed to pay her $750,000 to end the suit. It also racked up $590,833 in legal fees to a private firm it hired to defend it because the state’s attorneys didn’t have time. More legal bills may be on the way.

That’s a total of $1.34 million the state will pay because of what looks to Capitol outsiders like nothing less than a ham-handed illegal firing and a shameful political power-play gone wrong.

Lowe claimed that she was fired for refusing to succumb to pressure to end cost-cutting demands on engineering and construction firms that had donated to Gov. Butch Otter’s election campaigns and to then-Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee (R-Caldwell).

Lowe alleged that when she refused to quit trying to reduce a $50 million contract to $30 million that McGee introduced legislation to strip the Idaho Transportation Department board of the power to hire and fire the director. The legislation failed to pass, but the board fired her four months later under pressure from McGee, Lowe claimed. The board subsequently hired a man as her replacement and hiked his salary $22,000 above Lowe’s.

Ironies abound.

Idaho’s a small, poor state where more than a million bucks still means something when the Legislature engages in its annual rock-lifting exercise to try to find enough money to balance the budget. 

Gov. Otter and the Republican-dominated Legislature are famous for boasting about their fiscal restraint and concern for taxpayers.

ITD issued a self-serving statement saying that the board agreed to settle the lawsuit because of the potential risks, time, expense and the likelihood that legal fees would escalate. The statement should also have said, “No snickering, please.”

The damage is done. The state’s walking away with a couple of black eyes and a cracked jaw that all look self-inflicted. It’s Idahoan’s who’ve been blindsided by their own leaders. It is taxpayers who are stuck with the tab for arrogance.

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