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‘I leave with no regrets.’ Francine Giani, Utah’s longest serving cabinet member, retires

Posted at 4:03 PM, Jan 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-03 19:33:13-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- In her downtown office, a banner reading "Happy Retirement" hangs on the window.

Francine Giani, the director of Utah's Department of Commerce, is retiring after 35 years in state government, serving under five different governors.

"A kid from Queens, New York, who’s had the opportunity to participate in a lot of issues," Giani described herself in an interview with FOX 13 on Friday.

She began her career with the state of Utah in 1984 as Governor Norm Bangerter's press secretary. She moved over to Utah's Division of Consumer Protection before being tapped by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to lead the Utah Department of Commerce, the agency that licenses and regulates businesses and combats fraud.

Under her tenure, the state has streamlined processes for licensing and moved many services online. She praised the hundreds of employees at the Utah Department of Commerce.

"It has very little to do with who’s at the top. But it has more to do with those people I bring who are as committed and believe in the mission that is to help the citizens of the state of Utah," she said.

But Giani disputes the claim that Utah is the "fraud capital of the United States."

"I disagree with that. I do believe that we have some affinity fraud here which is where much of it has happened," she said.

Giani said that when she took office, telemarketing fraud was very high but has lessened in recent years. She credits the vigilance of the people in her agency whom she says work tirelessly to protect Utahns.

Giani said her landline phone still gets calls from IRS and Social Security scammers, and she occasionally trolls them.

"I love to get the live people because I encourage them to come to my house and try to arrest and all those kinds of things. And at that point, I get a little pushback and that’s when the hangup comes," she chuckles, adding: "You gotta have a little fun."

Giani said her advice to Utahns is always think and ask questions before you give up personal or financial information.

"Ask questions if you think in fact you are vulnerable for some reason. Ask questions first before you immediately jump the gun and give someone your personal information," she said.

Giani has a reputation for her no-nonsense style. Her critics have accused the Utah Department of Commerce of being overzealous in its investigations. When then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff refused to pursue a case against Rick Koerber, who was accused in a massive Ponzi scheme, she took the case to the feds who eventually won a prosecution.

Giani said her agency pursues the evidence and it is the prosecutors who pursue the cases, securing convictions.

"I believe we take a look at the evidence," she said. "We are not the attorneys here."

In a surprise move, Giani was asked by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2011 to do double-duty and take over the scandal-plagued Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. She came in with a mission to reform the agency that supplies and sells alcohol.

"It was the first time I’d been in a liquor store! I went to several of them and wondered what my ecclesiastical leader would think had I been found there," she said. "But I met some wonderful people at the agency who helped us."

In a statement, Gov. Herbert praised Giani.

"Francine Giani is one of a kind. She has always been a firm but fair leader with an unwavering passion for protecting Utah consumers and keeping the playing field level for all businesses," he said. "She successfully steered the Department of Commerce in good and challenging times. I am forever grateful for her tireless dedication and leadership."

One of the last things she is working to implement is an administrative rule banning conversion therapy on LGBTQ children. Gov. Herbert asked her to oversee it when a bill failed in the Utah State Legislature last year, sparking protests and heated public pushback. The rule bypasses the legislature, but it was crafted as a result of negotiations between LGBTQ rights groups, suicide prevention advocates and legislative leadership.

"It is my opinion that it will be implemented 100 percent," Giani told FOX 13. "The governor is committed to it, and he has been committed to it from the beginning, so kudos to him for taking on an issue that was not able to be resolved during the session this last year."

Giani said the governor tried to persuade her to stay, but she feels it is time to go. In retirement, she said she plans to do some family history research, take drum lessons and cooking classes. She has no plans to return to politics.

"It’s just been nothing short of amazing," she said. "I leave with no regrets."