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Gov. Herbert backing Utah transportation boss

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he stands behind the state's transportation boss, who is being criticized for his handling of back pay negotiations with an employee who was wrongly fired.

Democratic leaders are among those calling for the resignation or dismissal of John Njord, the executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation.

But Herbert says Democrats are wrongfully introducing politics into a process that is supposed to be confidential.

The controversy began with Njord's dismissal of Denice Graham, former civil rights manager for UDOT. Graham was fired last year after an audit identified her as the source of leaks during the bidding process for a $1.1 billion rebuilding project on Interstate 15 in Utah County.

Graham says Njord asked her to convince Democrats to stop using her case to seek political advantage in exchange for $67,000 in back pay. Graham says she turned down the offer and released a letter that she says Njord wrote her to propose the deal.

Democrats said Njord's attempt was improper and began calling on him to step down.

Graham was reinstated by the Career Service Review Office earlier this year after it was determined there wasn't proof that she was the leak and firing her was an "abuse of discretion" on the part of UDOT officials.

Herbert, a Republican, says that he has told Njord it was inappropriate to include that stipulation in negotiations with Graham. But Herbert says that overall he is very pleased with Njord's work.

"John Njord is an extraordinary individual and one of the best in America when it comes to constructing roads," Herbert said during his monthly news conference at KUED, a Salt Lake City public television station. "He has 1,600 employees and is only having problems with one. He has my confidence."

Earlier this week, the Alliance for a Better Utah said that Herbert should appoint an independent commission to investigate the handling of Graham's case. The group's executive director, Maryann Martindale, also called for the governor to "explain his allegiance and support for Njord, who has demonstrated a repeated lack of judgment."

Graham filed a new case with the Career Service Review Office, claiming that when she returned to work she was put in a position with fewer responsibilities. She is also asking for the $67,000 in back pay as well as $50,000 in attorney's fees.

Njord told The Salt Lake Tribune this week that he made the proposal to Graham, but withdrew it when the governor shot down the idea. He said she was given a different position because the department eliminated her former position as part of budget cuts, but that she has the same pay and more opportunity for advancement.