Pam Lowe Fires Back 

Former roads boss alleges sexism, cronyism at ITD

A Lowe down dirty shame: Former ITD Director Pam Lowe on sexism, roads and politics.

Nathaniel Hoffman

A Lowe down dirty shame: Former ITD Director Pam Lowe on sexism, roads and politics.

Though she made a career in the male-dominated world of highway construction, Pam Lowe says that the combination of sexism and politics cost her her job as director of the Idaho Transportation Department earlier this year.

Lowe, a civil engineer who was a project engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, a program manager at the Arizona Department of Transportation and came to ITD in 1993 after a stint with a private consulting company, said that women get a lot of attention and a lot of scrutiny in the business.

"I was the first woman project engineer for the Federal Highway Administration. This was 25 years ago--almost 30--and you'd go into construction offices and there'd be Playboys and Penthouses up on the wall," she said. "I mean, that's just the way things were and you just do a great job and you turn a blind eye to a lot of things, and I did."

But Lowe did not turn a blind eye when she was fired in July. In August she filed a tort claim against the ITD Board alleging gender discrimination and political retribution. This month, after the state failed to respond to her claim, Lowe filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. A response is due from the state next week, but Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter has released a statement backing the board's action.

"I support the decision of the board to remove the former director and go in another direction," said Otter. "The issue over the past legislative session became Pam and ITD, instead of fixing ailing roads and bridges and addressing the backlog of projects to keep Idaho's roads safe."

Lowe maintains that the issue was discrimination and Otter protecting his financial backers. Lowe alleges that before she was hired as director in 2006, board member Gary Blick stated that "no little girl would be able to run this department." Lowe, ITD's first female director, told BW that there are other instances of sexism that affected her job and those will come out if the suit goes to trial.

But Lowe also faced serious political pressures in her job for her attempts to scale back a major construction contract managed by URS-Washington Division and CH2M HILL, both major Otter supporters.

The two contractors, working as the Connecting Idaho Partners, manage part of Idaho's $998-million Connecting Idaho highway construction program--a plan to rebuild highways across the state paid with bonds called GARVEE bonds, which are backed by future federal highway funding. The Legislature and then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne approved GARVEE in 2006.

In February 2007, Lowe told the legislative budget committee that ITD could handle much of the program management for GARVEE in house, rather than contracting it out. In her suit, Lowe alleges that Otter's then-chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, told her that she should not have said she'd renegotiate the CIP contract.

"There were a lot of legislators that were darn unhappy with that contract," Lowe said.

The CIP contract was initially set at $52 million by former ITD director David Eckern, who left the department in 2006, after just three years, when a report was published showing low morale and fear at ITD.

ITD pulled some $7 million worth of program management work back to the department, and when the CIP contract was renegotiated in 2008, had pared it down to $30.8 million, according to ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten. The contract is currently under negotiation again, and ITD intends to bring even more management tasks under its direct control, in line with Lowe's efforts.

"It is the intent of the Legislature and the department to retain as much GARVEE work within the department as possible," Stratten said.

In the 2007 GARVEE reauthorization, the Legislature made it clear that "to the extent feasible and practical, the Idaho Transportation Department perform project-related work within the department itself."

ITD already manages a large number of GARVEE projects and all of the federal stimulus projects in house.

But Otter, in his statement, said that Lowe never spoke with him about the CIP contract.

"Over the course of three years, Pam never once raised concerns about the contract with me. In the end, despite her claims, Pam was ineffective and lost the faith and confidence of the board, my office and many in the Legislature," he stated.

During the last legislative session, Sen. John McGee, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a supporter of Otter's transportation initiatives who also receives campaign contributions from URS and CH2M HILL, proposed a bill to give Otter, rather than the board, the power to fire the ITD director.

In her suit, Lowe alleges that the board was concerned about this move and agreed to get rid of her if McGee would drop his bill.

"There was definitely a contingent at the Governor's Office and McGee that did not want me messing with that contract," Lowe told BW. "I think they cut a deal with McGee: 'Hold your bill, we'll get rid of her.' And then the board, in their rush to protect themselves from McGee's bill, didn't follow any levels of process. They didn't give me an opportunity to discuss my performance."

Lowe claims that she received only positive performance reviews during her tenure. McGee and two ITD Board members declined comment for this story.

In November, ITD hired Brian Ness, a regional engineer from the Michigan Department of Transportation, as its new director. Lowe, meanwhile, is looking for a job. If not her old job, at least her lost wages and her name back.

"I plan to take it as far as I need to," she said.

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