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Director of the Department of Economic Security removed

Tim Jeffries

Tim Jeffries

PHOENIX – The embattled director of the state Department of Economic Security is out.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday fired Tim Jeffries on the heels of reports that he had flown to Nogales on a state plane to take several staffers out drinking at a Nogales restaurant during business hours. Jeffries was celebrating the fact these workers had agreed to become “at will’’ employees who could be fired for no reason at all.

But gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said there was no single reason for the ouster, saying it came following a review of his tenure and actions at the agency.

“Gov. 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,’’ he said in a prepared statement. Scarpinato said the plan now to “to find a new director and bring stability to the agency.’’

The firing of Jeffries from his $215,250-a-year job is an about-face for Ducey who has backed his pick for the agency now for months through a series of controversial acts.

“The governor is very supportive of what he’s doing there and of how he’s engaging with employees,’’ Scarpinato said as recently as August.

That’s when Jeffries came under scrutiny for emailing staffers in the 7,000-plus employee agency about his trip to Lourdes and offering to take their written “special intentions’’ to the holy shrine. The governor’s office also had no problem with Jeffries having a cross on the wall of his state office.

A month later Jeffries found himself back in the public eye for sending a message to all DES employees on a state-owned email list with a link to a story with arguments against Proposition 205. That measure, since defeated, would have allowed for the recreational use of marijuana.

But the scrutiny really intensified after it was revealed that Jeffries had fired close to 500 workers, including many who had previously received high evaluations and even raises. That raised allegations that the director was targeting women, minorities, older workers and gays.

It got to the point that Ducey removed Jeffries’ power to fire workers. And he set up a process allowing those who already were let go to petition to get their jobs back.

There were signs the cumulative effect of Jeffries’ actions were beginning to take their toll.

On Monday Ducey gave his first indication he was taking a closer look at the agency. The governor told reporters he was “disappointed’’ in what he had heard and read about his DES director and that his confidence in Jeffries had been “shaken by what has been reported.’’

DES oversees a host of programs from food stamps and welfare benefits to unemployment insurance. It also is responsible for investigating cases of adult abuse; the child abuse functions had previously been taken from the agency, then under a different director, because of mismanagement.

Scarpinato said the governor believes it is important to have the agency running properly and without controversy and distractions.

“For several weeks, we have been engaged in a careful investigation of the agency,’’ he said, saying the “size and impact’’ of DES on Arizonans “required that level of attention.’’

Ducey immediately named Henry Darwin, the governor’s chief operating officer, to run the agency as interim director.

Darwin moved quickly to ease tensions at the agency, sending out a message assuring them that his goal “is to further your capacity to do more good for the people of Arizona.’’ He also asked employees to “put aside wasteful distractions and focus on what matters most.’’

But Darwin also made it clear that while he welcomes their input, he expects a certain level of loyalty and acquiescence to the decisions he makes.

“When topics are open for debate, all view are valid,’’ he said in the memo obtained by Capitol Media Services.

“But debate must end at some point, and the chain of command must decide,’’ he continued. And this is very important, once the decision is made, everyone on the team must totally commit,’’ saing “there can be no second-guessing or passive resistance.’’

Jeffries was not the only one to get the ax on Wednesday.

Also gone are: Daniel Collier who had been Jeffries’ chief of staff; Juan Aracella, the agency’s chief accountability officer; Morris Greenidge who had been chief human resources officer; executive assistant Marie Barker; and Charles Loftus the director of security.