Judge orders UTA to reinstate whistleblower, pay back wages
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Utah Transit Authority illegally fired a transit planner for warning the agency that it was violating safety rules, according to a new federal ruling.
U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge Lee Romero Jr. issued the order Aug. 13, requiring the agency to reinstate J. Michael Clara to his former position and pay him back wages, as well as $10,000 in compensatory damages.
Clara said he believes that adds up to some $300,000.
The Utah Transit Authority “unlawfully discriminated against Mr. Clara,” wrote Romero, contending his actions made him a protected whistleblower.
Authority spokesman Carl Arky said the decision could be appealed.
“UTA is disappointed with the judge’s decision, as it’s UTA’s position Mr. Clara was appropriately terminated for cause,” Arky said. “UTA is currently reviewing the decision in its entirety and evaluating appeal options. UTA has no further comment at this time.”
Clara said he raised concerns about several bus stops being built before the November 2015 vote on whether to raise taxes for transit.
“They said they had to put them in before Prop 1,” Clara said, despite problems including using federal funds for stops he believed were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Clara said the agency cut corners to speed work on bus stop amenities as it tried to generate positive publicity just before the 2015 Proposition 1 vote on whether to raise transit taxes. The agency has denied that, and the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the claimed connection to the election.
Clara also alleges UTA bosses were upset with him for saying its TRAX crossings do not meet federal standards.
Voters in Salt Lake, Utah and Box Elder counties rejected the tax increase.
Clara, now a community organizer for Crossroads Urban Center, said he’s not sure he wants to return to the transit authority, after being fired for “job abandonment” because he returned to work after a vacation later than originally scheduled.
“The question for me is whom am I working for — because I am not going to go back and work for the same unethical people,” he added. “They fabricated stuff in order to get rid of me. It’s concerning to me that kind of culture is there.”