Our View: State pays up — then tries to save face on Pam Lowe firing

August 26, 2012 

Which Idaho Transportation Department do you want to believe?

The ITD — and its governing board — that says it was prepared to take former director Pam Lowe to court? Or the ITD that gave Lowe $750,000 to make her wrongful-firing lawsuit go away?

The transportation board that says the Lowe firing was “appropriate”? Or the one that handed Lowe one more going-away gift, in addition to $750,000: a letter of reference that says she “performed satisfactorily” in all her state jobs, including the director’s post?

ITD can bluster all it wants — outside a court of law, conveniently enough — about how Lowe’s claims were meritless. The state transportation board can talk about how it was “within its legal rights” to fire Lowe.

Talk is cheap.

And a whole lot cheaper than this settlement, which became public last week.

Starting on Oct. 1, 2013, and for a decade, the state will send Lowe $5,045.98 a month, or $60,551.76 a year. That doesn’t match the $143,000-a-year salary Lowe commanded when she got the boot in July 2009. But it isn’t a bad payday for a plaintiff who, according to the state, had presented a litany of trumped-up grievances.

Lowe’s attorneys will get a $187,500 check. Considering how the ITD suggests, after the fact, that it was ready to cut Lowe’s case to shreds, her attorneys should just count their dollars and their blessings.

And let’s not forget the $614,646.56 paid to Holland & Hart, the firm the state hired to handle this case. Taxpayers will never know exactly what they got for their money. But it must have been first-rate work. After all, as the ITD now insists, the state was ready to take its chances in court.

“The board was prepared to take its case to trial, but the potential risks, time, expense and possible appeals meant the costs of litigation would continue to escalate,” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said Wednesday.

So, after paying their attorneys more than $600,000, board members finally got acquainted with frugality. Who are they kidding?

What we have here is a pile of claims and counterclaims — the likes of which are usually sorted out in court.

Among them:

Æ Lowe said she was singled out because she tried to whittle away at a highway construction management contract that benefited CH2M Hill and Washington Group, now URS, who were among Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign contributors. Stratten now says Lowe was directed to scale back the contract. “(The board) did not fire her for carrying out those assigned responsibilities.”

Æ Lowe claimed she was the victim of sexual discrimination. When she was hired as director in 2006, she said transportation board member Gary Blick reacted as follows: “No little girl would be able to run this department. ... What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?”

Blick denies making the statement, and ITD says it could find no one to corroborate Lowe’s allegation. (This comes awfully close to calling Lowe a liar, even though, under the settlement, the two sides agreed not to disparage each other.)

Who’s right and who’s wrong? We’ll never know. But it’s usually sound advice to follow the money — in this case, from taxpayer coffers to Lowe’s bank account.

After a costly fiasco like this, an agency should reexamine procedures and practices. And, Stratten says, changes have been made. Current director Brian Ness works under a detailed performance plan. His review period aligns with the state fiscal year, to grade his performance against agency spending. Ness meets monthly with board Chairman Jerry Whitehead to discuss performance and ongoing projects and issues.

The trouble is, the ITD’s after-the-fact spin sends an entirely different message.

It suggests that there couldn’t possibly be lessons learned, since transportation board members did nothing wrong. It suggests Pam Lowe just caught them in a generous mood. Lucky for her.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.

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