Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Fires State DES Director Tim Jeffries

On Wednesday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey fired Tim Jeffries, the man he'd appointed as director of the state's Department of Economic Security. The grounds for dismissal: Jeffries' mass firings of workers, which were first reported last year by Phoenix New Times.

Jeffries, who received an annual salary of $215,250, had served for 633 days before he submitted his resignation under pressure from Ducey. A businessman and friend to Ducey who had no prior experience running a state agency, Jeffries had come under increasing fire in recent weeks for the terminations, which at times appeared unjustified or even reckless.

The DES is one of the state's largest agencies, with about 7,700 employees, and mainly helps administer welfare, food-stamp, and unemployment-benefit programs.

Following a tip, New Times broke the story in October 2015 that the new director had fired 72 people he deemed "bullies," "liars," "slackers," and "bad actors," claiming they all had "multiple black marks" on their records. New Times followed the article, which received nationwide attention, with stories that detailed how some employees had apparently been fired without a good reason.

By November 2015, the mass-firings count was up to 168, aided by a law signed by former Governor Jan Brewer that had the effect of removing employment protections for thousands of state employees in the DES and other agencies. Some pundits gave cautious praise to Jeffries for the housecleaning.

Over the next year, Jeffries helped keep his name in the news with regular announcements of DES employees arrested for benefits fraud or other reasons by the department's own internal police force, the Office of Inspector General. But as his quirky management style made enemies as well as friends among DES employees, tips and rumors flowed regarding Jeffries' alleged ethics breaches.
New Times revealed in April that Jeffries, outspoken in his Catholic faith, had sent an e-mail to all employees encouraging them to send him prayer letters that he'd take with him on an annual pilgrimage to a religious site in Lourdes, France. Although a DES employee helped sort through more than 200 letters he received, the Arizona Attorney General's Office — responding to a complaint from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation — declared that he had a First Amendment right to send religious e-mails to employees.

In September, New Times reported that Jeffries e-mailed all employees a one-sided message condemning Proposition 205, the marijuana-legalization bill that was on the table for Election Day. The e-mail appeared to violate a state law preventing public employees from using state resources to influence an election, and the AG's office told New Times that agency directors should refrain from sending political emails that don't treat both sides of an issue equally. (The marijuana measure would subsequently go down to defeat.)

Reporters at the Arizona Capitol Times joined the coverage of Jeffries over the summer and produced stories that revealed how Jeffries sometimes had people fired not because of poor job performance but out of perceived disloyalty to him or to the DES.

For instance, after 22-year employee Andy Hall sent an e-mail in June to Jeffries' communications director, Tasya Peterson, opining that e-mails from her smacked of "politics" and admonishing her to "stick to DES business," Jeffries wrote to Hall's supervisor that Hall was an "idiot" and should be fired the same day.

Another New Times story in September noted that 435 employees had been fired to date in what threatened to be a "bloodbath."

Jeffries is a "bully" and a "terrorist," one employee who asked to remain anonymous told New Times at the time. "Employees have cried when Jeffries suddenly appeared in their work area, because they think he is there to fire people. He engenders that much terror in people."

Ducey's office did nothing about Jeffries until the Arizona Republic began a series of hard-hitting articles by Craig Harris on October 17, which seemed to prove that many (if not most) of the firings may have been unwarranted. Harris detailed stories of employees like 59-year-old Elvira Perez, who had lupus and was fired despite a solid work history that included no record of discipline.

Although Ducey's office claims Jeffries' actions had been under scrutiny long before the Republic published its recent series, the office began an official investigation after Harris' October 17 piece. A week later, Ducey stripped Jeffries of the authority to fire people. When Jeffries claimed it was his decision to install a monitor to oversee terminations, Ducey's office rebutted the assertion.

Harris kept up the heat, reporting that Jeffries had created a "do not hire" list for fired employees, and that most of those terminated were older than 40, while most new hires were under 40. On Monday, Ducey stated publicly that his confidence in Jeffries was "shaken" after a November 17 Harris article that told of how Jeffries had rewarded employees for giving up state protections — making it easier to fire them — with a party that included alcohol on work hours.

"This is the state’s largest agency, with more than 7,000 employees. For several weeks, we have been engaged in a careful investigation of the agency," Ducey's office said on Wednesday in a prepared statement sent to news media. "Given its size and impact on the citizens of our state, it required that level of attention. As a result of that review, Governor Ducey has taken appropriate action today to move the agency forward in a way that will ensure we are meeting our mission of assisting Arizona’s most vulnerable citizens.

"Henry Darwin, the governor’s chief operating officer, has taken over as interim director, effective immediately. He will maintain his role in the governor’s office, as Governor Ducey and his team work to find a new director and bring stability to the agency."

Jeffries tells New Times today, "I have no comments for the press at this early juncture."

He posted a message on Facebook that stated, "May God always bless my beloved colleagues and treasured clients at The Great DES. DITAT DEUS SEMPER!!!"

Some of Jeffries' supporters, including DES employees, wrote on social media that in their view, "Director J" (as he liked to be known) was a strong force of positive change at the agency.

"I am so sorry to hear this," wrote one Facebook user. "You have touched numerous lives and provided an energetic, fun environment for your employees. Your compassion and empathy for others is just what this agency needed. God closed this door to open a better one. You are in our prayers brother."
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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.
Contact: Ray Stern