DES Director Tim Jeffries Puts a Spiritual Spin on Mass Firings and Benefit Cuts | Phoenix New Times


Arizona Welfare Czar Tim Jeffries Puts Spiritual Spin on Mass Firings, Benefits Cuts to Thousands of Poor Families

In more than 1,600 Arizona households with children, families are wondering how they'll cope with losing welfare benefits starting July 1. They're facing tough decisions because of Arizona's draconian cuts to lifetime welfare benefits, now the toughest in the nation. States are allowed to use federal Temporary Assistance to Needy...
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In more than 1,600 Arizona households with children, families are wondering how they'll cope with losing welfare benefits starting July 1.

They're facing tough decisions because of Arizona's draconian cuts to lifetime welfare benefits, now the toughest in the nation.

States are allowed to use federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds — a.k.a. welfare — in different ways. Arizona could give TANF beneficiaries 60 total months of benefits, as most states do, but it's one of the stingier states when it comes to such things, and in 2011, had reduced the limit to two years.

After the November 2014 election of Governor Doug Ducey, Republican lawmakers rubber-stamped a provision in Ducey's proposed budget that pared the lifetime limit to one year, a period that critics say is too short to provide much of a safety net for the state's most vulnerable residents.

The first group of welfare beneficiaries will see their checks stop coming in July. Statistics from the state Department of Economic Security, which oversees distribution of the TANF funds, show that the benefits will dry up for the families of about 2,700 children.

The savings to the state is a relatively paltry $3.9 million a year out of a budget of $9.1 billion.

Created in 1996 by Congress and President Bill Clinton, TANF replaced the previous welfare system and is geared solely toward helping families. It's supposed to carry people through jobless periods and assist them in obtaining new jobs, all for the sake of dependent children. But as a June 3 study by Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy shows, TANF money — mirroring a national trend — has been used less for cash-assistance payments to needy families and more for child-safety agencies.

The effect has been pronounced in Arizona, where lawmakers have taken a stricter stance against welfare payments than in other states.

Since 1998, TANF cash assistance has fallen in Arizona by two-thirds while TANF funds going to child-safety services have jumped from 6 percent to 64 percent, according to the six-page Morrison report by the institute's director, Professor Thom Reilly, and graduate student Keiran Vitek. The upcoming TANF cut increases this trend.

The need to protect kids is great in Arizona, which leads the nation in child removals from homes and foster-care placements because of neglect.

But for families on the margin, taking away cash benefits could raise the number of child-neglect cases, the Morrison report suggests — which in turn would cost the state more money.

"So, what on the surface may seem to be a solution for the state's underfunded and underperforming child-welfare system . . . may very well be exacerbating Arizona's child-welfare problems," the report states.

The bureaucrat who will preside over this nation-leading yanking of benefits for the poor claims, ironically, to be one of the poor's biggest advocates.

Timothy Jeffries, director of what he calls the "new DES," beams with love for his new job, his thousands of new co-workers, his hundreds of thousands of needy Arizonans.

Appointed in February by Governor Doug Ducey, Jeffries considers himself the leader of a giant nonprofit organization, a "noble tin cup," he tells New Times.

Jeffries, 52 and filled with youthful energy, lives with his wife in Scottsdale; they also own a home in Lonetree, Colorado. With the peppy leadership style of a coach or a preacher, he routinely refers to nearly everything and everyone as "blessed" and seems on a proverbial mission from God to inspire "Team Awesome" with positive "mojo."

On the door to his office, a sign reads "Director J," followed by an engraved smiley face.

Inside the office, Jeffries has hung a small crucifix over the door, guaranteeing every visitor will see it, or at least walk under it. He professes great admiration for Pope Francis, even though the pontiff's political views are much closer to those of presidential candidate and socialist Democrat Bernie Sanders than conservative Ducey.

Judging by his heartfelt, outspoken feelings for the poor, Jeffries might seem a liberal's dream for the job of running the $700 million-a-year agency. The DES manages more than 40 social-welfare programs in its various divisions, providing therapists for developmentally disabled kids, managing child-support payments, and doling out checks for unemployment insurance, foods stamps, and, of course, TANF.

But Jeffries undeniably is a very political appointee.

Records show he's a heavy contributor to Republican causes and candidates. He's an outsider to state government (except for a stint on the quasi-public board of the Arizona Commerce Authority) and a buddy of the governor's. Jeffries might have landed somewhere else in Ducey's cabinet if he hadn't ended up at the DES.

After the election, Ducey asked Jeffries which state agency he might want to lead. During a chat about his interests, Jeffries related, it was agreed that the DES would be perfect for him, in part because of his deep desire to serve the poor.

Yet no matter what Jeffries thinks, he serves at the whim of a boss who believes the best thing for welfare recipients is to cut them off and force them to get a job sooner than they may be able to. Ducey reaffirmed last month that he would allow the one-year lifetime benefit to go into effect.

So far, Jeffries' biggest action has been firing 168 people he publicly called "bullies," "liars," "slackers," or "racists."

The state agency's director typically garners headlines for scandals like the 2013 debacle that resulted in the former Child Protective Services agency getting dismantled and removed from DES oversight.

Jeffries, though, recently received an avalanche of press attention for his mass firings after the story broke on October 14 in New Times.

Some in the community viewed his actions positively. Indeed, many of those fired may have deserved it. Whether they fit the derogatory names he called them, however, is undetermined. He brags that no one has sued, which so far is true.

From Jeffries' point of view, he's making things more efficient — doing the Lord's work with what he's got. The agency still has more than 7,600 employees, he points out.

He calls himself an "anti-bureaucrat" and insists that he's just "cleaning up." He claims to love his employees (the ones left, anyway), believing he's made them safer and better able to do their jobs.

Jeffries is building up the esteem of many of the remaining workers with promotions, performance bonuses, and thank-you notes. His goal is simple: To make Arizona's DES the best agency of its kind in the country. He wants a smooth-humming, harmonized machine in contrast to the chaotic, undisciplined mess he says he inherited.

He also wants to do right by his boss, Ducey, who's given him this opportunity of a lifetime. So if Ducey tells him to cut benefits to 2,700 children, he's going to do it — apparently while continuing to paint Ducey as a caring Catholic who only has the long-term good of the people in mind.

Ducey has given him the mandate to lead the DES, Jeffries told a state Senate hearing panel in March: "He has empowered me and inspired me to be one of his key compelling faces for the beautiful heart he does have for the poor."

If Jeffries loves his employees and if both he and Ducey love the poor, it's a tough love.

Still, Jeffries vows to do everything in his power to help the people his boss hurts with the welfare cut.

Advocates for the poor have high hopes for Jeffries because of his pro-services rhetoric. They hope he uses his position to lobby the governor and conservatives in the Legislature to fund DES services at higher levels in the future.

Jeffries says he's already meeting with lawmakers to ask for more funding, but as of yet, he's not pushing Ducey to reverse the TANF cut — which he says is a policy matter.

By next July, the public will learn whether Jeffries succeeds at being either a Pope Francis-style champion of the poor or a spinner for and enforcer of Ducey's fiscal conservatism.

As much as Catholicism has been an influence on Jeffries, he's struggled over time with the Christian concept of forgiveness.

His older brother was murdered brutally in 1981. Four men kidnapped Michael Jeffries, then an occasionally homeless drifter in Colorado, and stabbed him 65 times before crushing his skull. Two perpetrators were caught and convicted; one hanged himself in jail while the other remains alive behind bars, causing Jeffries to periodically testify at parole hearings. The crime has had a profound effect on Jeffries' life, and he talks often about it with DES staff.

In one of his videos, he also describes seeing his father physically abuse his mother.

The middle of three boys raised by a single mother in Sacramento, California, Jeffries — like Ducey — is a product of the Catholic school system. He attended a Jesuit high school, then landed a scholarship at Santa Clara University in the Bay Area town of that name.

He arrived at the Catholic university a few weeks before his brother's murder. Yet he is remembered as one of Santa Clara's most vivacious alumni, according to a video made in 2013 when he won the school's Ignation Award, given to alumni who achieve "SCU ideals of competence, conscience, and compassion."

In a newspaper article from the era, Jeffries explains that students watching the college's basketball team, the Broncos, didn't seem as fired up as they should be. So he painted his body green, donned a lizard mask, and performed wild antics at games. To his surprise, "Lizard Man" soon was a hugely popular figure. He had the muscle back then to back up his energy level, photos show; Jeffries also played defensive back for SCU's football team. He was the first of his family to graduate from college.

After he left SCU in 1985 with a degree in political science, he went on to obtain an MBA (later in life, in 2003) from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

During his DES confirmation hearing, state senators mentioned that some agency service providers were concerned about Jeffries' lack of experience in the social-services field. What little experience he has in government was long ago — he once was elected to a four-year term as a city councilman in Santa Clara.

Jeffries related some of his life history and gushed to the panel that he brings heart to social-welfare work because he understands firsthand why people need it. If better government services had existed for his brother, he might still be alive, Jeffries told them.

His qualifications certainly are different from his predecessors, Clarence Carter and Neal Young. Instead of the government and social-work background they had, Jeffries has spent the past 25 years dabbling in various technology and investment firms, working occasionally as a vice president or board chairman at medium-size businesses. Former associates know him as a problem solver and an organizer.

He's been a board vice chairman for a smallish defense company, Mission Technology Group, and senior vice president for IHS, a company that purchased the well-known Jane's weapons guides in 2007. He's played a role in various investment firms, like 1stWest Mergers and Acquisitions, and a company he founded, P7 Enterprises.

Outside his business career, Jeffries served as president of Arizona Voice for Crime Victims Inc. and the National Organization for Victims Assistance. He was a national trustee for the national Parents of Murdered Children Inc.

Jeffries departed 1stWest Mergers in 2013, when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper appointed him senior deputy to the chief recovery officer helping victims of a flood that had stricken the state in September of that year, says Ted Rieple, 1stWest managing partner.

"He then partnered with the Mile High United Way to raise money for the flood victims," Rieple says. "He made a real difference . . . the state of Arizona is very fortunate to have him as DES director."

Jeffries' DES bio is padded with a few defunct or nearly defunct companies (along with still-operating ones), and he readily admits that his résumé isn't particularly impressive. He claims that as DES director, he now has a smaller annual income than he's had over the past 20 years while stating that he's not a millionaire.

No obvious scandal appears in Jeffries' business record — no bankruptcies, no ignominious terminations like the ones he recently dealt to DES workers. He's been married to the same woman, Mary Frances, since they fell in love at SCU. She's headmaster at Archway Veritas, a Phoenix charter school, (which happens to be part of a chain founded by Republican insider Jay Heiler, currently a member of the Arizona Board of Regents). They have two adult children, including one attending Duke University.

He may not be rich, but Jeffries has been a heavy contributor to right-wing politicians. He's the kind of donor who can be counted on to give not just a few hundred dollars, but a few thousand. This year, online records show, Jeffries gave $2,000 to presidential candidate Marco Rubio and his Reclaim America PAC. He's poured thousands of dollars toward U.S. Senator John McCain, former Senator Jon Kyl, and Arizona Congressman David Schweikert.

A member of a half-dozen Catholic organizations, such as the ancient Order of Malta, he considers his religion a significant influence on his running of the DES.

He's enrolled in a master's degree program at Colorado's Augustine Institute, hoping to graduate in 2019 with a degree in Catholic Theology and the New Evangelization. The latter term refers to an ongoing church proselytizing mission to bring fallen Catholics back into the fold.

Whether politics or religion rules Jeffries' actions at the DES remains to be seen. But, at times in his personal life, archives show, he has chosen politics.

A 2013 article in the National Catholic Register states that Jeffries received a letter in the fall of 2008 from his brother's imprisoned murderer, who wasn't named. The article suggests that an emotional Jeffries had decided to forgive his brother's killer and told the article's author: "If my brother's murderer has truly experienced the broken heart of contrition, then Jesus has wrapped his arms around him and forgiven him. Jesus loves me and compels me to do no less."

Yet a few months later, in July 2009, Jeffries testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court appointment of Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal judge who at the time was vilified by conservative pundits.

Sotomayor's offense, from Jeffries' viewpoint, was that she had once stated that murderers are human beings, had apologized to a cocaine dealer for giving him a five-year mandatory sentence, and was opposed to the death penalty.

One morning last spring, a longtime DES employee was greeted by an unfamiliar man at her desk, along with her project manager and the director of her division.

"Before I could drink my first cup of coffee." Kelly (New Times is withholding her real name and the division in which she worked) was told to gather her personal belongings and follow them to a conference room. After more than 15 years on the job, Kelly guessed correctly that she was getting fired.

"I asked what it was that I did wrong and their response was filled with hate," she says. She says a division assistant director informed her: "We don't have to tell you what you did wrong. Just know your services are no longer needed at this moment."

Her supervisors documented no reason for the termination. She became one of those fired from the DES in recent months as part of "Same Day Exit," a program Jeffries launched to rid the agency of "bullies," "liars" "slackers," or "racists."

The woman says she felt she was dismissed because she had complained about DES policies and management. She's contemplating legal action.

Another woman who worked there for more than 17 years agreed that the agency is loaded with bullies. Problem is, she says, Jeffries isn't firing enough of them but is firing good employees like her. She saw one bully promoted during the recent firing spree, she says. Another bullying manager forced a worker into retirement for filing a sexual harassment report against a favored employee, she says. Fired in late September, she also asked to remain anonymous — on the advice of a lawyer.

Their stories could not be verified. Two other ex-employees and one current employee contacted New Times with similar tales of office drama; all refused to go on the record, though several supplied documents that show the reasons for the firings may not be as simple as Jeffries states.

Records show the pace of firings hasn't slowed. Eight were fired in July, 30 in August, 24 in September, and 10 in October.

Jeffries doesn't just hate bullies; he harbors a "visceral loathing" for them and their "wretched ilk." Bullies killed his brother. His father was a bully. Now, after finding the DES supposedly infested with bullies, Jeffries seems to be taking revenge. It's been a metaphorical slaughter.

"We have already exited scores of legacy bullies in our great agency, and we will not relent until we have finished this task to honor, protect, and care for you," he wrote in a September e-mail to all DES employees. "If a colleague lies about bullying behavior in an effort to deceive and assault [his or her] manager, the liar will be exited. I repeat, the liar will be exited for . . . dishonesty. In obvious summary, under the DES Value of Integrity, bullies will not be tolerated, and liars will not be tolerated either. So, bullies, beware! And, deceit, be gone."

When some New Times readers complained in an online comment section that calling people names was callous, Jeffries rushed to his own defense, writing that not only were most of the people fired bullies and liars but some were "harassers" and "slackers," too.

"Oh, no," wrote one reader cryptically about the Jeffries article.

"Oh, yes," Jeffries responded.

One fired DES worker, MaJenta Spencer, commented online that she'd been ousted unfairly. Jeffries replied to her curtly that he'd read her case file and wished her the best of luck in the future. New Times, in interviewing Spencer, could not confirm or disprove her claims of mistreatment. She also shared a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, John Millard, written after her termination that praised her as a stellar worker.

Whether most of the 168 people let go in Jeffries' housecleaning deserved to be fired — much less whether all of them actually were bad employees — couldn't be determined through a public-records request. The DES declined to release much information about the group, citing privacy laws.

As part of his reorganization, Jeffries has replaced half of his 30 assistant directors with nine new ones and seven deputy assistant directors, all promoted from within.

His new Division of Developmental Disabilities assistant director, Laura Love, replaced a man who had brought in a team, he says, "from a faraway land. They were all bullies."

Of 72 employees fired since July, Jeffries says, all had numerous black marks on their records and deserved to have been canned long before he showed up. The fired workers were "exited for a spectrum of reasons that made them unworthy of state service," he says, rattling off once again his list: "bullies, racists, harassers, philanderers, liars, slackers. Some were just one, some were a couple."

But in termination letters supplied by the DES for the 72 (whose names were redacted), little information was available, except for the divisions in which the employees had worked.

"Unworthy" employees were found across the agency, though most of those fired in recent months came from the Division of Developmental Disabilities. It's as if Jeffries asked each department boss for at least two heads. Besides larger divisions in the DES, like Benefits and Medical Eligibility and Child Support Services, the agency's smaller Inspector General, Business and Finance, and Communications offices each found and fired two supposedly bad workers.

More women than men were dismissed, but more women work at the DES. Yet all but four of the 72 most recently fired did have one thing in common: They all were "uncovered" state workers, meaning they could be fired at any time for any reason without the automatic appeals and grievances of "covered" employees.

In the past, most state workers were classified as covered, which made them harder to fire. But in 2012, ex-Governor Jan Brewer signed a personnel reform bill into law changing the system. Not only are new state workers uncovered, but any new assignment, such as a promotion or demotion, changes covered employees to uncovered.

Over the past couple of years, the state also has offered employees cash bonuses if they change their status to uncovered.

The short termination letters of the uncovered employees, each signed by an assistant director, state that the employees' "services are no longer required" and remind them that they have no right of appeal to the State Personnel Board.

The four cases involving covered employees detail the reasons behind their terminations, and each seems warranted.

One employee refused to help at a busy counter with a lobby full of people inquiring about benefits and yelled "Fuck this!" at a boss before storming off the job without authorization. The other three cases involved aggressive insubordination, theft of state property, or misuse of a state computer.

The current DES employee interviewed says Jeffries may have inspired some employees to achieve, but he also has generated fear. Like Kelly, the employee says he's complained about supervisors he perceives as bullies. A supervisor friend told him to keep his "head down" or he would be fired, he says.

"Everybody wants to get out," the employee says. "They think it's going to get worse . . . There is no due process."

Dozens of e-mails and other documents shared by the employee did not confirm any of the reported abuses.

Requests for notices of claim, which are preliminary to lawsuits, turned up nothing, supporting Jeffries' statement that no one has challenged him, legally, over the firings.

But state law gives citizens 180 days to file a notice of claim if they feel they've been treated unfairly by a state agency, meaning there's still time for fired employees to move forward with legal action.

In the past seven months, Jeffries has bounced from one meeting to the next, participating in more than 130 town halls across Arizona with local leaders and groups of DES employees.

He's talked with lawmakers and social-welfare service providers and made 23 videos, including a series called "On the Road with Director J." The videos have been "a great morale booster," DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson maintains.

Jeffries touts that he's conversed via e-mail with more than 2,000 employees. The "new DES" will be transparent and open to media scrutiny, he promises.

He may be a bit too blunt, according to Beth De Lima, a California-based human resources consultant. From an HR perspective, she says, Jeffries shouldn't discuss reasons for terminations in the media because personnel matters are confidential.

But Jeffries remains unapologetic, arguing that the cleansing was necessary to rid the DES of negativity and of slackers who felt entitled to coveted state jobs.

After the story of the DES firings broke, Jeffries was praised by many in the media, including Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts and conservative Seth Leibsohn, who has a radio show on KKNT-AM.

Thom Reilly, director of the Morrison Institute and lead author of the June report on TANF funds, read about Jeffries and remains hopeful.

Mass firings from a new boss are "usually not advisable," he says.

But Reilly, former county manager and CEO of Clark County, Nevada, which has Las Vegas within its boundaries, says, in his experience, Jeffries' open-door policy "can be a really good thing." He says it reminds him of his own frequent contact with employees when he was with the county.

As for the TANF fund problem, Reilly says, "This came in before him." He imagines Jeffries might be able to do something about it in the coming legislative session, which begins in January.

"The director of the DES would have influence in the Legislature — I hope he utilizes that opportunity," says Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks, who met Jeffries at one of his community town halls.

Rodgers' nonprofit association receives $1.7 million in funds from the DES each year to help with distribution and storage of food for the state's neediest residents. She would like to see Jeffries also use his "connections in the business community" to encourage more job-training programs for the poor and perhaps even subsidized employment for some, "whatever that looks like."

Like Reilly, Rodgers would prefer that the Legislature reinstate the 24-month TANF fund lifetime limit or even increase the limit to the federally allowable 60 months. If a person has two or more episodes "that cause them to need a little help," the one-year total limit for welfare benefits could be reached easily, she says, adding that society would be better off if needy people received employment training and self-sufficiency skills, the lack of which previously kept them from holding down jobs.

Jeffries says he can't do much about the TANF cut: "I'm not a policy maker. I'm a policy implementer."

He believes the governor "has a huge heart for the poor." But he agrees that the new law "will make things challenging" for the more than 1,600 families.

He will try to make sure the group is able to "engage" all the services that the DES has to offer, he says. His plan to help the 1,600-plus isn't formalized yet, but as July approaches, he says, "We will spend time trying to figure out what's prudent."

One big difference between running a nonprofit and running the DES is the way in which money is raised.

"I'm in the process of meeting with the [state] House and Senate — every member," he says. "That's who I have to fundraise with."

Under Jeffries' leadership, the DES has begun to reorganize its Division of Aging and Adult Services, in which workers manage up to 150 adult-protective cases each. Hours have been extended at DES offices, which "costs a little money," Jeffries says.

The agency will continue to push for a one-time $37 million boost to revamp the state's unemployment insurance system, which Jeffries says will pay for itself with matching federal funds. Plus the agency needs more funding for its 30-year-old core IT system.

"I thought the Reagan era was pretty good for the country," but the agency's computers shouldn't be stuck there, he quips.

Tim Schmaltz, on the other hand, wouldn't laugh at Jeffries' joke. He was one of three retired Catholic Charity directors who wrote an open letter to Ducey after the Arizona Legislature passed the governor's budget in March. He says Ducey's trying Reagan's trickle-down economic theory, even though Reagan's plan never worked.

Ducey's budget "fails by cutting basic poverty programs like TANF," the trio wrote, blasting the budget for a range of other problems, too.

Schmaltz later tells New Times that it's not enough for Jeffries to be charitable personally; he must be charitable as a state bureaucrat, too. In Jeffries' position as a DES director who's about to enact budget cuts that would affect nearly 3,000 children adversely, Schmaltz says, "He ought to be having some cognitive dissonance over that."

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