When employees of the Arizona Department of Economic Security turn on their computers in the morning, the first thing they see is an inspirational video, often made fresh daily.
"Man, I wear this cowboy hat, I have flashbacks. I thought I was riding a mechanical bull," DES Director Tim Jeffries says with a laugh in one of the recent videos, wearing a black cowboy hat and standing next to a cart full of kids' toys. "Let's face it: Sometimes working at DES feels like that. And maybe it feels like it right now because of this video. But I'm just here to say, 'Have a yippee-ki-yay day!'"
Not all of the videos, which were Jeffries' idea, are cheesy. Some feature a department head, like Dr. Laura Love, assistant director of the DES's Division of Developmental Disabilities, simply welcoming employees to their job and telling them to have a great day. (Scroll down for a curated sampling of the videos.)
Jeffries, now in his job for more than a year after being appointed by Governor Doug Ducey, has been the most energizing and outspoken director of the agency in years, or perhaps ever. He has rammed his cheery personality up the very essence of DES culture, and his Catholic, service-oriented faith has become a focal point of his leadership for the social-services agency and its roughly 7,700 employees. Last month, in response to complaints from secular and atheist groups, the Arizona Attorney General's Office backed him up, saying Jeffries had a First Amendment right to discuss religion in e-mails to employees.
It would be tough to measure if he has actually done a better job than previous DES directors. The director's post has gotten somewhat easier, especially from a public-relations perspective, since the scandal-ridden Child Protective Services was removed from the DES and made into its own agency, renamed as the Department of Child Safety. The DES, which has the fifth-largest budget of all state agencies, behind state universities, is primarily responsible for distributing federal and state benefits like unemployment checks and food assistance to the needy, and for making sure people pay their child support.
Jeffries has focused on building employee morale, and claims he has been wildly successful at it.
While many employees seem to love the attention he showers on them and on the agency, others find his antics distracting, annoying, or downright inappropriate. Some of his detractors come from the ranks of the hundreds who have been terminated under his watch — he claims many of them are "bullies," "liars," and "slackers." Other "haters" (as Jeffries calls the people who criticize him) still work there but spread their irritation anonymously, contacting the Secular Coalition of Arizona, the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the news media. Every two or three weeks, New Times receives a packet of anti-Jeffries' mail, often containing photos, e-mails, factual information, or false rumors from the "haters."
"The daily propaganda messages that all employees hear when they turn on their computers remind staff of the Hitler era," one anonymous writer wrote.
The complaints run the gamut, from the frivolous to the potentially serious.
One of the most common criticisms leveled at Jeffries concerns the way he and other DES supervisors treat employees who have fallen out of favor. From an outsider's perspective, Jeffries may be cleaning up the office and getting rid of people who should be fired, but with more than 400 terminations consummated under his reign, the housecleaning threatens to border on a bloodbath.
Jeffries says his policies are clearing out the negative people and making things better for the quality "colleagues" who stay.
But according to one DES employee who asked to remain anonymous, Jeffries is a "bully" himself.
"He is a terrorist," the disgruntled employee says. "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."
Several people have complained to news outlets that decent employees have been caught up in the terminations overseen by Jeffries, and that they deeply resent being blasted as a group by the director.
A few of the fired people have attempted to push back, but none have been successful.
One former employee sued Jeffries and DES in federal court earlier this year, alleging that she was fired in retaliation for exposing bad practices within the child-support division. She dropped the suit before providing detailed evidence of her claims.
Ex-supervisor Elizabeth Grigg filed a whistleblower complaint with the Arizona State Personnel Board after she was fired, claiming that Jeffries retaliated against her for failing to dismiss six employees in June. Grigg alleged that Jeffries had ordered the terminations after the employees had included negative comments about their job in a survey.
E-mails obtained by Hank Stephenson of the Arizona Capitol Times for an August 26 article (for subscribers only) about Grigg show that she lamented her role in the planned terminations to Todd Templeton, the agency's acting chief information officer. The mass firing "seems to be the director's style," Templeton reportedly told her. "This feels like carpet bombing when a surgical strike is in order."
Grigg didn't fire the employees and wound up being fired herself, two weeks later.
On August 24, the personnel board recommended that Grigg's claim be dismissed owing to various technicalities and because it didn't allege an unlawful act or abuse of authority. Following a rescheduled meeting, the board is slated to issue a final decision in October.
Jeffries denies that he directed Grigg to terminate any employees and notes that the employees in question remain with the agency. The allegation that responses on a survey would lead to a firing, he says, is "a lie and insulting to the core. And by the by way, I love the fact that people mark 'negative' and 'strongly negative' [on internal surveys.] It tells me where the problems are. I would rather know than not know."
Jeffries acknowledges that the agency has terminated 435 employees during his tenure and that he has hired nearly that number. He doesn't believe the rate of firings is much different from that at other state agencies and says the agency is better for it.
Jeffries & Jesus 1 — Atheists & Haters 0
Representatives of the national Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Secular Coalition for Arizona say they're in contact with DES employees who say they're too frightened of being fired to give their names. They believe Jeffries's Catholic-flavored e-mails and other communications violate state policy and the law.
Madeline Ziegler, president of the FFRF, sent a letter to the AG's Office on August 29 to protest the office's support of Jeffries and demanding that he be ordered to cease his "unconstitutional religious endorsement."
Jeffries had been set to meet with the Secular Coalition of Arizona over the issue a few weeks ago but canceled the meeting.
The flap between the anti-religion groups and Jeffries began after Jeffries e-mailed employees in April, inviting them to send him prayer letters for him to take on his yearly pilgrimage to the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France. He received more than 200 letters.
Paul Watkins, head of the civil-litigation division for the AG's Office, responded to Ziegler's complaint in an August 10 letter, rejecting the notion that Jeffries had violated any rules. If the state were to tell Jeffries to quit inserting his personal opinion in e-mails, even if they were sent on state servers, it would be a violation of his First Amendment rights, Watkins wrote.
In response to the controversy, Jeffries promised not to send an invitation to employees next year, but vowed to continue speaking publicly about his faith. News of the state's support of Jeffries was embraced warmly by religious and right-wing media. Former Ohio Mayor Ken Blackwell, for instance, praised Jeffries on the national Daily Caller news site.
But the prayer invite was only one facet of Jeffries's religion-spiced management style. A presentation he prepared included slides containing the "7 Tenets of Catholic Social Teaching," a quote from a 17th-century Catholic cardinal, and another from a religious writer asserting that "the glory of God [is] in everyone."
The atheist and secular groups, along with DES insiders who have reached out to New Times, say the AG's Office shouldn't have so casually disregarded Jeffries' atypical use of the state's motto, Ditat Deus, which is Latin for "God Enriches." In DES communications, Jeffries has signed e-mails "Ditat Deus — always." A slide in the aforementioned presentation reads, "Ditat Deus — 'The New DES.'"
"Subordinates are obligated to pay attention to Mr. Jeffries' speech because of this position of authority," Ziegler wrote in her August 29 letter. "When Mr. Jeffries leads a prayer, or cites Catholic doctrine in a presentation, it is with the weight of the DES behind him, and employees feel obligated to listen to the person who ultimately represents their department and has the power to fire them."
According to Watkins, every DES has the same right as Jeffries to include religious references in state e-mail. But the agency tells New Times that only 58 employees have the ability to address e-mails to all DES employees — mainly Jeffries's leadership team and their assistants. So despite the shared First Amendment rights, Ziegler makes a valid point when she notes that Jeffries's position is vastly different from that of the workers he oversees.
Jeffries himself has offered a tip to people who don't care for his spiritual observations. In an August 31 e-mail to all employees, Jeffries noted that he'd received yet another anonymous letter of complaint from a purported DES employee. With the letter weighing "heavy on my heart," Jeffries suggested that those who don't like his morning videos shouldn't watch them. Don't like his e-mails? Don't read them.
"If these well-intended things pain you, simply don't watch nor read them," he advised.
"There are no scandals"
Some of the complaints about Jeffries seem beyond petty. One recent letter, for example, contains photos of the brightly colored bollards outside DES headquarters in downtown Phoenix and e-mails from Jeffries with various statements highlighted without comment, as if to cast suspicion on them. But was it nefarious of Jeffries to have one of the bollards painted bright yellow, endow it with his signature smiley face and dub it "Mr. Smiley"? And what to make of the fact that Jeffries took a minute to photograph the unadorned red bollards outside a Target store and e-mail the pics to his staff, asking which bollards were better, DES's or Target's? The anonymous correspondent likely devoted more time putting together the dossier than Jeffries spent provoking it.
Jeffries has met with employees at DES offices in the far reaches of the state, beefed up the agency's internal police force to catch criminals and provide more security for workers, and held large, morale-boosting events.
The "haters" complain about it all.
"Clark Collier, the deputy director of programs (at $160 thousand annually), recently posted a video of [Jeffries] doing head stands at work," wrote one critic who claims to be a DES employee. "People wonder if his job is walking around and talking to employees. He is very good at that."
In an August 23 letter, the same critic notes that Jeffries has no background in social-service work and exceeded his budget in hiring his leadership team. (Jeffries was a senior vice president at IHS, an information-services company, before Ducey tapped him to run the DES.) He has been wasting money, the critic alleges, asking New Times to check into his boss' use of the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix for events. And, writes the complainer, Jeffries hired his daughter to work at the DES.
Jeffries denies that he's over budget. He was able to negotiate a $2,000 rental fee for two Celebrity Theatre events and would do it again, he adds.
Jeffries confirms that his daughter did work for the DES in a temporary job for a few weeks over the summer, but he says he didn't hire her and she didn't report to him. Nothing about the hiring was improper, he says.
"There are no scandals," Jeffries says firmly. "There are people trying to proffer scandals, lies, untruths, distortion, and deceit."
Jeffries called out his "haters" in an agency-wide e-mail last month, asking them to contact him directly and not to be afraid to speak their minds.
Given all the terminations, might that require a certain amount of chutzpah?
"Who would be dumb enough to go to talk to him?" one anonymous letter writer asks rhetorically. "His team has created a hostile work environment. We are afraid to say anything in fear of being let go."
Jeffries says no employees have contacted him with complaints about his personality, the firings, or his religious statements. And he insists overall morale at the DES is good and getting better.
After the news media covered the Attorney General's ruling on the prayer-letter flap, Jeffries received more than a few compliments from employees, which he wanted to share publicly.
"I am sorry you have to go through this political bull poop," writes one Jeffries fan. "As one of Jehovah's Witnesses I know firsthand about misconception, ungrateful diversity, and most of all, hate. I respect you and what you stand for."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"You may count me in as one of the most fervent, passionate, and adamant members of the 'freedom from religion' camp," another current "colleague" informs Jeffries. "That said, I admire you greatly as a man of faith ... I never felt as though your emails were proselytizing or in any way speaking for anyone but yourself and not meant to endorse or set forth as departmental policy."
Jeffries redacted the names of the employees who sent him their praise. But there's little doubt that his morale-boosting efforts have inspired a loyal following along with the cadre of critics.
"I hope to have the opportunity to meet you in person soon, even if just for a brief exchange," one employee writes. "Until that time, thank you again for your humility, your passion and your inspiration! With much respect and thanks, DITAT DEUS."