Whistleblower’s firing raises questions over Otter’s special deals

Former Idaho Transportation Department Director Pamela Lowe’s dismissal and her subsequent legal action raise new concerns over ongoing mismanagement of the public’s trust by Gov. Butch Otter and other top Republicans.

“This is just the latest example of rampant Republican cronyism, mismanagement and favoritism toward special interests,” said Jim Hansen, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party:

From secret settlements arranged by the Idaho Tax Commission to corporate tax giveaways made at the expense of middle-class Idaho families, there’s a pattern here and Idahoans are growing tired of it.

“The 2009 legislative session was prolonged by Otter and Republican leaders, and they wasted millions in Idahoans’ tax dollars,” Hansen added. “

Not only is Idaho’s government badly managed, but we continue to hear more and more about how big special interests and campaign contributors call the shots.

The Associated Press reported that Lowe has filed legal action against the state, saying she was fired in July “after refusing to relent to pressure not to cut a big highway contract that benefited large political contributors to Otter and state Sen. John McGee, the Senate Transportation Committee chairman.”

The AP reported that Otter and McGee have received nearly $20,000 in contributions from Washington Group International (now part of San Francisco-based URS Corp.) and CH2M Hill since 2004. Lowe is seeking damages from the state for improper termination and gender discrimination.

Idaho Transportation Board Chairman Darrell Manning said the claims are without merit. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s aides declined to comment.

Lowe alleges she was repeatedly told not to trim a $50 million project management contract with road builders Washington Group International and Denver-based CH2M Hill for the $1 billion “Connecting Idaho” highway program. She says pressure came from former Otter chief of staff Jeff Malmen, now an Idaho Power Co. lobbyist, and from Manning, an Otter appointee.

“Ms. Lowe was not deterred by these threats and was determined to do what was in the best interest of the State of Idaho and its citizens,” according to her claim.

After the board voted to fire her last month, Manning told reporters her ouster would help “the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.”

Washington Group International, now a unit of San Francisco-based URS Corp., and CH2M Hill gave Otter $17,000 in contributions in 2005 and 2006, according to the Idaho secretary of state’s campaign finance database.

McGee, R-Caldwell, has gotten $1,900 from Washington Group since 2004.

In the 2009 Legislature, a heated session in which Otter and Lowe’s agency failed to convince lawmakers to boost the state’s gas tax to fund highway projects, her performance was criticized by some lawmakers including McGee. He unsuccessfully pushed a measure to move authority to appoint the highway agency director to the governor from the Transportation Board, where it’s been for decades.

In her gender discrimination claim, she says Transportation Board member Gary Blick said at the time of her hiring “No little girl would be able to run this department” and “What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?”

Idaho law allows board members to remove a director “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”

But Lowe contends her final 2008 board performance review concluded she “achieves solid sustained performance.”

“If these allegations are true, Ms. Lowe’s allegation should not only be the basis of a civil lawsuit but of a criminal investigation,” Hansen said. “Is this ‘pay to play?’ or ‘you don’t get the contracts if you don’t make the contributions?’ Idaho taxpayers deserve to know the truth.”

On the Spokesman Review blog Eye on Boise, RathdrumBob wrote:

This will undoubtedly cost the state (my tax dollars at work) a million bucks or more. When will the Angry Old White Men Party begin to realize that we are no longer in the 20th Century? How many lawsuits, at both the state and local level is it going to take? Guys, WOMEN HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS! Deal with it, just as those of us in private industry deal with it (by doing the right thing).

JeanieS added:

“O boy – I remember when some guy at work called ME a “little girl” and I was 30 years old. That was in 1979! I can’t believe that still goes on!”

Other Reading:

Pam Lowe’s tort claim: Sex discrimination, cronyism at ITD

Idaho fires Idaho Transportation Department director Pam Lowe

Read Pam Lowe’s Charges Against Transportation Department