Arizona DES Worker Terrorized by Abusive Boss Wanted to Get Gun and "Shoot Someone"

An Arizona Department of Economic Security worker cracked under the strain of an abusive boss, admitted herself to a psychiatric ward, and talked of wanting to "shoot someone," the agency says.

When the DES Office of Inspector General investigated, witnesses corroborated the employee's story of verbal and physical abuse, and the supervisor was arrested last week at work by armed OIG officers.

"I received several messages from female colleagues saying 'thank you for protecting us.'" — Tim Jeffries, Arizona DES director, following the arrest of a DES supervisor on suspicion of assaulting a subordinate

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The victim, who wasn't named by the DES, checked herself into a local Veteran's Administration mental-health facility recently and talked to officials about Gary Phillips' alleged abuse. She described enduring months of verbal abuse and at least two incidents of physical abuse, according to the DES. After a the last incident, "she felt extreme anxiety and wanted to retaliate against the perpetrator," says a DES summary of the incident by DES Inspector General Jay Arcellana.

A VA official felt the woman "could be a risk to herself, or, to others," and reported that the DES employee had told her: , "I feel like I want to get my gun and shoot someone."

DES Director Tim Jeffries, who was appointed by Governor Doug Ducey in February 2015 and has made headlines for his mass firings of scores of suspected "bullies" at the DES, said after receiving word from the VA about the situation, he didn't want to wait for local law-enforcement to investigate Phillips, a 20-year DES employee who has been a supervisor for about four years. He said he felt he needed to make a "fast and fearless" decision and preferred to have his OIG police force "swiftly investigate and take action."

Phillips worked in conjunction with the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department as a local veterans' employment representative, helping vets find jobs and providing other services for them. A DES newsletter states that he won an "American Legion LVER of the Year" award in 2015, and he's reportedly a veteran himself.

Interviewed at the VA facility, the employee explained that she had been assaulted by Phillips on more than occasion, the DES says. She told investigators that not long after starting her job last year, her boss physically assaulted her in a state vehicle at a work function. The exact nature of the alleged assault wasn't detailed. 

The employee said Phillips regularly dished out verbal abuse to her and co-workers and physically assaulted her again at the office, the DES says. The verbal berating continued, she told investigators, until she determined that she needed professional help.

After leaving the VA facility, the woman had another interview with OIG officers and provided more details. They said she insisted that she liked her job and feared getting fired.

Officers talked to the four other employees at the workplace, and they backed up her story of verbal abuse, the DES says. One of the other employees reported having witnessed Phillips physically assault the woman at work, the agency says.

Arcellana believed he had enough probable cause to make an arrest on suspicion of a misdemeanor  assault, and on April 12, he directed two armed officers to arrest Phillips at the office, the DES says.

Phillips was taken from the building to an Arizona Department of Public Safety facility, where he was fingerprinted and photographed before getting released with a written citation. The DES plans to submit a report detailing the alleged offenses to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, but the report hasn't yet been submitted. No charges have been filed.

Arcellana says the investigation is ongoing. The allegedly victimized employee continues to work at the DES.

Arresting Phillips wasn't required — he could have been simply sent home and given the citation. 

But Jeffries said the arrest was necessary because the woman felt "terrorized" and "suffered peril" for almost six months. He views the arrest as "rightfully unpleasant" for the accused man and said he immediately began hearing word from DES employees that "it was about time" something was done about the supervisor.

"I received several message from female colleagues saying 'thank you for protecting us,'" Jeffries says.

The agency has about 7,700 employees, 75 percent of whom are women. Of those, more than 2,000 are single mothers, Jeffries said. They help make the agency great, he said, in part by exuding what Pope Francis calls "the female genius."

Jeffries said he feels added responsibility to all of his female "colleagues" at the DES, in part because of his experience from childhood witnessing his father beat his mother. [Update: Jeffries mentioned after this article was published that he'd rather it stated his father had produced "domestic chaos, including verbal and physical abuse," a phrasing he believes better honors his mother and "beloved brother."]

"Director J," as he likes to be known at the DES, comes from a hardscrabble life in Sacramento, California, the middle of three boys raised by their single mother. His older brother was murdered while homeless in Colorado in 1981. Jeffries went on to graduate from Santa Clara University and received an MBA degree in 2003 from Duke University. He spent most of his working life in executive positions at medium-sized firms. Politically connected, Last year, Jeffries was given the choice by Ducey to head up a state agency and he chose the DES, where he's been changing the culture of the agency dramatically.

As New Times reported in October, Jeffries uses meetings, videos, and e-mail to personally connect with employees, and initiated a program to rid the agency of "bullies," "liars" and "slackers." On Thursday, he reported that — more than a year into his new job — he's had 291 people "exited" under the effort. He says he's made good on another promise to hold DES workers accountable when they're suspected of committing crimes. He put Arcellana in charge of the OIG and told him to investigate where appropriate.

In August, the DES arrested an employee in connection with food-benefits fraud — which he said was the first time in the history of the agency that such behavior wasn't swept under the rug. Since then, the agency's own police force has arrested two other employees for suspected benefits fraud; a third suspect was investigated by the OIG and arrested by Buckeye police. A fourth employee was arrested in January in connection with financial exploitation of an elderly person.

The OIG employs 180 people, 13 of whom are sworn police officers in Arizona.

Jeffries said he's also instructed Arcellana to boost security at the agency after the December shooting rampage by suspected terrorists at a social-services office in San Bernadino, California.
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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.