It used to be that the people who worked in the city of Phoenix's public information office were friends — or at least acted like it.
"It was a family," says one employee. "Everybody went to lunch. Everybody went to each other's homes."
Not anymore. These days, the 12th floor is quiet. It's "business only," one employee tells me. "Everybody's afraid to say anything."
It's hard to blame anyone for clamming up, really. On October 2, the city demoted its acting public information director, David J. Ramirez. After a city investigator found "inappropriate interactions" between Ramirez and his staff, the 13-year veteran got a $25,000 pay cut, a transfer to Sky Harbor, and the public embarrassment of not one but three relatively lengthy stories in the Arizona Republic. D'oh!
To outsiders, the sordid details smacked of an out-of-control environment: Ramirez admitted to city investigators that he called a female subordinate "baby," that he joked about masturbation, that he discussed a male subordinate's sexual preferences. People wondered why the situation was allowed to fester for so long.
But to people who've worked with Ramirez, and even some members of the Spanish-language media, the questions are much different.
Namely, if no one complained about Ramirez's behavior for 13 years, why did it suddenly become an issue this autumn? And, more importantly, was Ramirez really out of control — or was he a wiseacre unfairly brought down by a subordinate who resented being told to work harder?
To the Spanish-speaking community, and even some Anglos, David Ramirez was the "face" of the city of Phoenix for more than a decade.
In 13 years with the city, the extroverted Ramirez rose to be deputy director of the city's public information office — earning a six-figure salary in the process. The bilingual former journalist seemed to be everywhere, from the city's public access television channel to Spanish-language radio broadcasts.
To reporters who needed information, Ramirez was a valued conduit: He'd get to questions fast and produce relevant documents even faster.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I've worked with Ramirez on stories for the past four years or so. We never socialized outside of work, but I always enjoyed his gregarious manner. (When I started working on this story, I thought that I could persuade him to talk, but he repeatedly declined comment.)
Here's what I can piece together, after talking to three city employees and a half-dozen Spanish-speaking journalists who know the parties involved.
On August 28, an aide to Mayor Phil Gordon, Gerardo Higginson, wrote to some of the PIO staff to tell them about a new Spanish-language television show. Ramirez replied, and for whatever reason, he hit "reply all."
"I am always impressed how you are so ahead of the game when it comes to the world of Spanish media," Ramirez wrote to Higginson, according to a copy of the exchange obtained by New Times. "I love the fact that you are not lazy, put in more than 35 hours of work a week and come to work on time and don't leave work early. I need you to come to one of my PIO staff meetings and review with my staff the importance of showing up to work on time and not leaving early."
The tone was clearly jocular; Ramirez ended the e-mail by saying that Higginson "reminded me of me . . . kicking ass and taking names later."
But Ramirez's jovial tone hardly concealed his bigger point. I'm told Ramirez, since becoming the department's acting director in June, had been riding the public information staff's liaison to the Spanish-language media, Alejandro Montiel, about his (alleged) short days in the office.
And Montiel took the bait. He sent Ramirez an e-mail that evening, saying that his "'public' e-mail," CC'd to so many staffers, "is not appreciated."
Montiel suggested holding a meeting to discuss any issues Ramirez had with his performance, then added, "during that meeting, we can address some of your unprofessional behavior . . . "
The next morning, another public information officer, a woman who's widely regarded in the office as Montiel's closest friend, filed the complaint against Ramirez that triggered the investigation. She alleged that he'd made inappropriate sexual and religious comments.
New Times is not naming the woman.
In a letter to the city, Ramirez noted that he considered both Montiel and the female complainant "part of my trusted 'inner circle.'" The female employee had stayed at his home while Ramirez and his wife were on vacation just one month earlier, Ramirez wrote.
"I had no idea that any of the issues that have surfaced in this investigation were problems to either of these employees or any employees in the department," Ramirez wrote. "In fact, much of the banter between me and [the female employee] has existed during the entirety of her five-plus years with the city.
"It was not until I was placed in the position of temporary acting director, and asked these two employees to comply with office requirements, that any complaints were made about me engaging in any type of misconduct."
Two of the city employees I spoke with share Ramirez's take on the situation. "I think it was retaliation for being disciplined," one said. "David had changed from a deputy to a director, and he was expecting his employees to be good employees. 'Who does he think he is?' That's what this whole thing was about."
Whether that's ultimately true, the perception lingers. And now that the city has acted so decisively, demoting Ramirez, there's a certain chill around Montiel's cubicle. (Montiel is out of the office and did not respond to e-mails seeking comment. He also didn't respond to a message on his cell phone.)
The perception that Montiel sold out a friend has also complicated his relationship with the Spanish-language media. Ramirez was popular with the area's veteran Spanish-speaking journalists. Many of them had met Montiel through him.
"Our involvement with David was not only professional — we considered him our friend," says Lety Garcia, publisher of Prensa Hispana, the area's largest Spanish-language newspaper. "I know Alejandro through David. I'd always see them together. And if Alejandro had anything to do with it . . ."
Coco Taylor is a producer of Mujeres Unicas, a Spanish-language talk show that broadcasts daily on 1190 AM. She says her station recently discussed Ramirez's demotion on the air — and got an anonymous call from a woman claiming Montiel was to blame for the investigation.
That might not sit well with Spanish-speaking journalists, she says, for cultural reasons.
"We play like that," Taylor says. "We tease. When we see a cute guy, we tease. We're like that in our culture. That doesn't mean we're harassing anyone."
Taylor says her program has put in a public-records request at City Hall to find out more about what happened. In the meantime, she's trying to refrain from judgment.
For now, everyone is just trying to be cautious.
"If we have to work with Alejandro, we have to work with Alejandro. There is nothing we can do about it," Garcia says.
But, she adds, "There is always the question of, 'What if I say or mention something that makes him uncomfortable? Will he turn us in for sexual harassment?"
That may not be an idle fear. After Ramirez was demoted and Montiel began to get the cold shoulder around the office, I'm told that Montiel complained to supervisors that two public information office employees weren't saying "hi" to him. (The city says it has no written record of such a complaint, but my sources are certain it happened.)
I'm told they're now saying "hi." But in light of everything that happened to David Ramirez, that's about all they're saying.
FREEWAY SAL AND THE GAG ON GARY VERBURG
Last week, I told you about Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio's business dealings with the Gila River Indian Community. The councilman, who represents the Ahwatukee neighborhood just north of the reservation, has been working to develop two 75-acre parcels on tribal-owned land. DiCiccio's development plans would clearly gain value should ADOT extend the Loop 202 freeway to the south and west.
Why is that controversial? Well, even though ADOT considers the extension an eventual certainty, DiCiccio's Ahwatukee constituents do not. They've fought the plan for a decade.
The area's previous councilman joined with neighbors in the fight. But DiCiccio has taken a more nuanced position. While officially claiming to oppose the extension, his actions suggest that he hopes to resolve the issue: He's met with ADOT, brought the area's two congressmen into negotiations, and even put together a "kitchen cabinet" to unify the neighborhood over an alternative to ADOT's much-loathed route.
And he did all that, as I reported last week, without disclosing his business interests to many of the key stakeholders — including Congressman Harry Mitchell.
After ignoring my requests for comment, DiCiccio gave interviews to the Republic's Scott Wong (who repeated DiCiccio's excuses in a credulous blog post on October 17) and Channel 12's Brahm Resnik (who reported the story more skeptically on October 20).
In his defense, DiCiccio trotted out City Attorney Gary Verburg, who confirmed that DiCiccio had asked him for advice. Verburg said he'd found no conflict with DiCiccio's participation on Loop 202 matters.
I called Verburg three times last week, with no response. After I finally wrote an e-mail instead, the city attorney wrote back to say that he couldn't talk — he had to abide by attorney/client privilege. Apparently, DiCiccio waived that "privilege" and allowed Verburg to talk to the Wong — but he wouldn't waive it and let Verburg talk to me. Nice.
But after watching Channel 12's follow-up report last week, I think I've got an inkling as to why DiCiccio is being so cagey.
On camera, when reporter Resnik queried DiCiccio about his conflict, the councilman brandished the letter he originally wrote to the city attorney.
I was so stunned by what the letter said, I literally pressed "pause" as the camera panned past it.
"Due to my past business relationship with the Gila Indian Community," DiCiccio wrote, he was seeking "the guidance of the law department."
Past business relationship? Past business relationship?
The councilman has leases on tribal land that will be good for another 64 years! He's making regular payments to the tribe through the Bureau of Indian Affairs! He's appeared in front of the tribal council to work on amending his development plan, even as he sits on the Phoenix City Council!
Pardon the exclamation point overkill, but even beyond all that, the conflict isn't so much that DiCiccio's spent years dealing with the tribe — it's that his development plans currently stand to benefit from any movement on the long-stalled extension plan.
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Ahwatukee deserves to know whether DiCiccio disclosed that to Gary Verburg, or whether he just gave him the drive-by version. But, of course, Verburg can't talk. He's got to abide by attorney-client privilege, unless DiCiccio releases him from it.
Come on now. If DiCiccio is going to use a taxpayer-funded attorney to provide his defense, the least he can do is allow that attorney to speak honestly to anyone who inquires — not just reporters he considers "friendly."
DiCiccio's letter to Verburg undercuts his supposed defense. The real question is whether Verburg, ungagged, will do the same.