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Idaho to pay Pam Lowe $750K to settle lawsuit

The state of Idaho will pay the former head of the Idaho Transportation Department $750,000 to settle her wrongful termination lawsuit against the agency.

Pamela Lowe was the state’s first and only female transportation chief when she was fired by the Transportation Board in 2009, a little more than two years after being appointed to the post by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Lowe sued, contending that she suffered gender discrimination and that she was fired because she refused to modify department decisions to benefit companies that donated to the governor.

The settlement terms were released Aug. 22. The state didn’t admit any liability, but agreed to pay Lowe’s attorney fees, and to pay her more than $5,000 a month for 10 years, starting in the fall of 2013.

That’s the equivalent of about $60,000 a year, well below the annual salary of about $143,000 Lowe received while she led the Idaho Transportation Department. The settlement also contains a non-disparagement clause, which means neither side is allowed to disparage the other.

The Transportation Board also agreed to write a letter detailing Lowe’s employment with the agency. In the letter, the board states Lowe performed satisfactorily throughout her career at ITD.

Lowe said the ordeal has been difficult and while the $750,000 settlement is “a lot of money,” it’s a compromise and much less than the damages she believes she incurred. Still, she said, she’s thrilled to be able to move on with her life.

“I’m a positive person and I’m glad to take a positive step to have this behind me, to put this litigation behind me and move on with my life,” Lowe told The Associated Press in a phone call between meetings at her new job as financial director for the Delaware Department of Transportation. “I’m proud of what I accomplished at ITD. … I focused my entire career on transparency and saving taxpayer dollars, and I believe that is my legacy.”

In a prepared statement, ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said the agency still believes it was within its legal rights to fire Lowe but said the settlement allows the department to focus on the good things that are happening at the agency.

“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,” Stratten said in the press release.

The settlement brings the state’s total cost for the case to $1.34 million. Idaho paid private law firm Holland and Hart more than $590,000 for its defense after officials with the Idaho Attorney General’s office said the state’s lawyers were too busy to represent the Idaho Transportation Department in the lawsuit.

The agency had received public records requests for the settlement from several news agencies in Idaho, including The Associated Press. It released settlement document Aug. 22 after notice of the final settlement was filed in the federal lawsuit.

Lowe won some important rulings in the lawsuit before the settlement was reached. U.S. District Judge Ronald Bush said she wasn’t a political appointee or at-will employee who could be fired without cause at any time, instead finding that she was entitled to the same job protections other state employees enjoy.

The paper records of her employment also appeared to support her case, according to court documents, with Lowe noting in her lawsuit that she’d only received positive performance evaluations. She also cited nearly $80 million in savings from a five-year program that emphasized efficiency and better operating practices at the department.

But Lowe clashed politically with some influential lawmakers and political appointees, and she contended that she refused to bow to threats by governor’s aids warning her not to interfere with or scale back a contract originally worth $50 million. The contract benefited URS Corp. and CH2M Hill, two engineering companies that at the time of her firing had given the governor at least $22,000 combined since 2005.

In March 2009, some Republican lawmakers worked to get support for a bill that would give Otter power to replace Lowe. Sponsors – including former Republican Sen. John McGee – said it would give Otter authority to pick an advocate for highway policies favored by the executive branch, as well as give the governor someone to hold accountable when problems emerge.

But the bill failed to gather enough support, and Lowe resisted pressure to step down.

After her firing Lowe said some transportation members told her it was the result of blackmail from McGee, who was then a rising GOP star who represented Caldwell in the state Senate.

McGee has since been mired in scandal. He resigned earlier this year after a legislative aide accused him of sexual harassment, and he was set to serve at least 44 days in jail starting Tuesday after a 4th District judge in Ada County found that the harassment allegation – which led to a conviction of disturbing the peace – violated his probation on a drunken driving conviction from May 2011.

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