Tim Jeffries, the crusading new director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, is on a mission to rid the agency of employees he calls "bullies...liars and multi-year bad actors."
In the past 90 days, 72 DES workers have been fired in Jeffries' crackdown on negativity and "unworthy" employees at the agency. Some have been let go under a "Same-Day Exit" program in which problem workers are shown the door as soon as possible.
"I'm just cleaning up," Jeffries tells New Times in an interview today.
Last month, Jeffries sent all DES employees an e-mail to help make his point, including a link to "an important and passionate video clip" in which he talks about his "visceral loathing for bullies and their wretched ilk.'"
The DES is one of the state's largest agencies, with about 7,600 employees and a budget of about $700 million a year that goes to numerous social-service programs, like the Department of Child Support Services, unemployment assistance, and welfare.
Governor Doug Ducey accepted the resignation of the previous director, Clarence Carter, in January. Jim Hillyard, a deputy director, then became an interim director until Ducey appointed Jeffries in February. Hillyard tendered his resignation from DES three months later.
Jeffries — or "Director J," as he likes to be known — has a quirky, preacher-like style, and he makes no apologies for his religious influences or for the crucifix hanging on the wall in his office. He's led 130 "town hall" meetings with DES employees since March, weaving his tribulations and successes into inspirational speeches about the "new DES" he's building. He estimates he's responded to about 2,000 e-mails by employees. When he found out that 31 employees have been with the agency for more than 40 years, he sent them all thank-you notes, he says.
Asked how he has time to do all that and still run the behemoth agency, Jeffries replies, "I'm a God-fearing country guy so I'd say 'the grace of God.'" He has to make time, he says, because "every day, thousands and thousands of beautiful, broken, suffering souls need DES to be excellent today and tomorrow."
A former cheerleader for his alma mater, Jesuit-run Santa Clara University in California (where he was known for playing the mascot "Lizard Man"), Jeffries worked most of his life in various business ventures. He's served as vice chairman of Mission Technology Group in San Diego, as executive chairman for ChemResearch Company in Phoenix, and before his appointment, was senior vice president at IHS Inc., a publicly traded Colorado information company perhaps best known for its acquisition of the popular "Jane's" weapons guides. Yet he states bluntly that his résumé isn't "particularly impressive."
Jeffries admires greatly Pope Francis' call of duty to the poor and sees his own responsibilities as especially heavy in that regard.
"My responsibility is to optimize the agency so every possible dollar I can get to the poor, I get to the poor," Jeffries says. "Any agency that serves the poor has the responsibility to be the best."
The new director's focus on the poor doesn't entirely come without irony, though, considering Ducey's stingy state budget that includes cutting 1,600 families from welfare rolls next July. But Jeffries says he's doing his best to serve his "treasured" employees so that they can better serve the "treasured" 2.2 million Arizonans who receive some type of services from the DES.
He says one way he's accomplishing the goal is by ridding the "cancer" of problem employees.
In the e-mail last month, Jeffries asked all DES employees to heed warnings in the linked video about maintaining "righteous values," such as respect and accountability. Jeffries explained in the e-mail that the video "highlights my ardent insistence that any egregious bully in our noble agency be identified and exited."
"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. "If a colleague lies about bullying behavior in an effort to deceive and assault their manager, the liar will be exited. I repeat, the liar will be exited for their 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."
The video, shot at an August 21 meeting with employees, shows Jeffries describing how his loathing for the "egregious bullies" at the DES comes in part from his own family experiences. His dad beat his mom and brother, he says, and his brother was murdered in Colorado. He wants employees to help keep each other safe.
"You have to be good shepherds," he says to a crowd of employees in the video, sweeping his hand back and forth dramatically. "I insist."
Jeffries tells New Times that the recent firings involved managers and lower-level employees from all sectors of the DES. Too many people in government, and in his agency, he says, feel entitled to their jobs despite records of poor performance and bad relations with other employees. With the firings, he's "eradicating entitlement" in the agency and freeing up high-demand jobs for better workers, he says.
While "Same-Day Exit" may sound harsh, the fired employees all had numerous black marks in their personnel files, Jeffries says. New Times has not reviewed the cases.
"Egregious offenses were perpetuated over the years, and for reasons that flummox me, that baffle me, proper actions were not taken," Jeffries says. "In my opinion, these 72 should have been exited well before the governor was even elected."
Jeffries says the arrest in August of a DES worker on suspicion of food-stamp fraud was a striking example of the DES culture he wants to change — because it was the first time anyone at the agency had ever heard of such an arrest.
The problem, Jeffries explains, isn't that this actually was the first DES employee to be accused of benefits fraud, it's that in the past, employees weren't held accountable. After he "poked around," he found out that the DES used to find fraudsters and terminate them, "then let them go on their way. So [the] DES for decades would find criminals in [its] midst and would release them to the streets...My predecessors felt that an arrest was bad press for the agency. I actually think it's good press."
In other words, look for more such good press from the DES in the future.
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
Below: Jeffries is a strong believer in using video to get his messages across. The following video is like a promo for him, putting his on-screen highlights to music:
In his most recent video, an October 5 address to attendees of a recent conference put on by the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness, Jeffries once again mentions his brother's 1981 murder, speculating that the tragedy might have been prevented with the help of dedicated social-service activists.