DES Director E-Mails Anti-Prop 205 Campaign Propaganda to Entire Staff

Tim Jeffries, the outspoken director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES), wants people to vote no this November on Proposition 205, the ballot measure that seeks to legalize recreational use of marijuana in the state.

Jeffries has donated a total of $1,500 personally to the opposition group, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy (ARDP), and spoke out about the initiative at least twice on a radio show hosted by Seth Leibsohn, a cofounder of ARDP.

On Monday, DES employees arrived at work to find an e-mail from Jeffries pushing an anti-Prop 205 message from Leibsohn that contained questionable facts.

DES says Jeffries sent the e-mail for "information purposes." 

But unlike the religious e-mails Jeffries has sent to the 7,700-member DES staff, this one may have run afoul of a July 2015 opinion from state Attorney General Mark Brnovich about the use of taxpayer-funded resources to spread a one-sided political message.

In looking at several Catholic-tinged e-mails Jeffries sent earlier this year, the AG's Office concluded last month that Jeffries and other DES employees had a First Amendment right to send personal e-mails on state e-mail servers. Jeffries didn't proselytize; he invited staff to send him prayer letters to take with him on a pilgrimage to a religious site in France, and he has been known to discuss his Catholic faith in DES e-mails and presentations. (He is also one of only 58 DES employees who are able to address a message simultaneously to all employees of the agency.)

The e-mail Jeffries sent from his iPhone on Sunday night may have been composed at his home, in his free time, but it was unabashedly political in nature and nowhere close to neutral in its tone. (Read the full e-mail at the end of this article.)

The e-mail consists of a forwarded mass-mailing from Leibsohn with a hyperlink to a lengthy op-ed Leibsohn published on September 25 on the right-wing website American Greatness.

Jeffries' e-mail is topped by the subject line, "Fwd: Alcohol 'safer' than marijuana???????" and consists of a four-word introduction: "You be the judge."

Then comes a note from Leibsohn urging recipients to "feel free to use or distribute at will," followed by the link to his piece on the American Greatness site.

Jeffries didn't respond to questions from New Times concerning the e-mail.

"Senior leadership regularly circulates articles and news stories regarding current events," DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson tells New Times. "The e-mail sent by Director Jeffries was sent purely for informational purposes."

Jeffries' personal donations and public opposition to Prop 205 are in line with those of the man who appointed him to his post, Arizona governor Doug Ducey, who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for ARDP.

J.P. Holyoak, chair of the campaign that put Prop 205 on the ballot, says that if Jeffries is making an honest attempt to inform DES employees about the controversial ballot measure, he ought to be willing to give equal time and access to Leibsohn's opponents.

"Would he be willing to send a piece from us to all DES staff as well?" Holyoak asks. "If he's not willing to this, it's clearly a case of bias rather than one of education."

Prop 205 aims to make personal amounts of marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and would set up a series of retail stores that favor existing medical-marijuana stores like those Holyoak runs. About 600,000 Arizonans 21 and older regularly use cannabis, according to a state study, but those who don't have medical-marijuana cards face felony arrest for possession of any quantity of the substance.

Holyoak characterizes Leibsohn's article as factually inaccurate and written from ARDP's point of view.

The article, entitled, "When a Lie Travels: Comparing Alcohol to Marijuana," contains truth-challenged statements.

For instance, Leibsohn writes that "marijuana rarely causes death," implying that marijuana overdoses are rare. In fact, they're unknown to science. Leibsohn also writes that while it is "rare" for alcohol to cause a user to require assistance from paramedics, such a need is increasingly commonplace for marijuana users. He does not mention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that an average of six Americans die from alcohol poisoning every day.

Campaign records show that as of August 27, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is the chair of ARDP. She was formerly the co-chair. It's unclear how Leibsohn's role at ARDP has changed, but he is still doing work for them, even if as a volunteer. Leibsohn did not return a message seeking comment on Monday.

A statement from Mark Brnovich's office doesn't directly address Jeffries' e-mail but suggests that the DES director should refrain from sending political e-mails that don't treat both sides of an issue equally.

"The Attorney General’s Office has previously opined on determining when restrictions of public resources for the purposes of influencing the outcomes of elections with regards to ballot measures exist," the office told New Times in response to a request for comment about the e-mail. "Any communication should be carefully reviewed to determine whether there is a use of public resources, and if so, to insure those resources are not used for the purpose of influencing the outcome of elections in a non-impartial manner."

Last year, Polk and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery asked Brnovich to clarify how they might be restricted from using public resources — such as their time or taxpayers' money — to influence an election. The request stemmed directly out of their interest in using these resources to thwart a ballot measure that recent polls show has a chance of passing. After Brnovich issued an opinion in May 2015 stating that it was permissible for them to use limited public resources for political purposes, a public outcry prompted the attorney general to reconsider, and he withdrew the opinion.

In a revised opinion issued in July 2015, Brnovich all but reversed the original and clarified that after a campaign for an initiative files paperwork with the state, elected officials and public employees may not use public resources "for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections."

The opinion supplies "an objective two-part test" to determine whether a violation might occur:

"(1) was there a use of public resources; (2) if so, were the public resources used 'for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections?'"

Jeffries sent his e-mail on a Sunday at 7:46 p.m., clearly outside of normal working hours. But Brnovich's opinion could be interpreted as stating that Jeffries' full-staff recipient list is a "public resource."

Campaigns routinely pay to obtain lists of contact information for a targeted audience. The DES staff may be thought of as a targeted audience, each member of which has a working e-mail account. (And an e-mail from the boss is very unlikely to wind up in one's spam folder.) ARDP might have paid thousands for such a list, had one been offered for sale.

"Absolutely" the e-mail list has value, and Jeffries erred in sending it, says a local election attorney who agreed to comment for this story on the condition that his name not be published. The state's so-called Little Hatch Acts, which Brnovich cites in his opinion, prohibit the use of public resources to influence elections, the attorney points out. While he doesn't believe Jeffries' apparent violation is worthy of prosecution, he says, "I think it should be dealt with internally. This is not an appropriate message to send on state e-mail."

New Times contacted two local political strategists, one Republican and one Democrat. Both agreed to speak on the condition that their names not be published.

"Clearly there would be a market value to [the e-mail address list]," says the Republican strategist, who is not connected to the Prop 205 campaign. Jeffries' mass mailing doesn't pass the "smell test," he adds.

The Democratic strategist says that even if someone tried to market a list of 7,700 DES employees, consultants "wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole" out of ethical considerations, and also because it could come back to "haunt" whoever tried to use it.

"It stinks," the strategist says, adding that DES employees who vocalized a pro-205 opinion or worked for the cannabis-legalization campaign on their off time might be rightfully worried about falling into disfavor with Jeffries.

Asked if he'd be willing to send a pro-Prop 205 e-mail to DES employees as Holyoak suggests, Jeffries didn't reply.

Below is the text of Jeffries' e-mail:

Sent: Sunday, September 25, 2016 7:46 PM
To: *All DES Employees
Subject: Fwd: Alcohol "safer" than marijuana???????

You be the judge.

Sent from my iPhone

Begin forwarded message:

From: Seth Leibsohn
Date: September 25, 2016 at 4:46:58 PM MST
To: Seth Leibsohn
Subject: Alcohol "safer" than marijuana

Seeing the increased trope of the MPP and various Campaigns promoting the safety of marijuana compared to alcohol, and the cleverness with which they deploy it, I did my best to blow that up here, as comprehensively as possible. I couldn’t think of a normal magazine or outlet for such a piece, so I just published it myself. If you like, feel free to use or distribute at will. Thank you for all your work, thoughts, and help. Always,
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.