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Reporter Mark Flatten examined 10,000 documents in discipline investigation

Mark Flatten’s latest report for the Goldwater Institute presents cases where government employees have been put on paid leave for months while waiting for the state to discipline or fire them, but the most costly case to taxpayers was one the most difficult for the investigative reporter to uncover.

The report said that an assistant attorney general was placed on paid leave for nearly eight months after a judge filed complaints against him. The attorney resigned before any disciplinary action could be determined, but the whole process cost the state $67,994, according to the report.

“One of the problems we had in terms of getting these administrative leave documents had to do with this little sub-category of employees who resigned rather than being fired, basically,” Flatten said. “Well it turns out the one that was the most costly was on that list and was this assistant attorney general.”

Flatten’s latest report released on Wednesday by the Goldwater Institute presents evidence that suggests the state’s disciplinary process for government employees can make it difficult to discipline or fire unqualified or troublesome workers, and it can lead to some workers being put on paid leave for long periods of time at the taxpayer’s expense.

Since July, Flatten has been poring through at least 10,000 public documents referencing more than 600 cases in which government employees were disciplined or fired from state agencies, the city of Phoenix and the Tucson Unified School District.

Flatten is no stranger to this kind of extensive investigation. He was a reporter for a number of newspapers in the state from 1981 until last year when he joined the Goldwater Institute. He was a leading investigative reporter for the East Valley Tribune for 17 years.

Flatten said the process of obtaining the personnel files of employees for his latest investigation proved difficult.

“Agencies get nervous when you start asking them about personnel records,” Flatten said. “I’m not saying for cover-up or for illegitimate purposes, I just think they get nervous when you start digging through their people’s personnel files.”

But Flatten needed the names of the employees so he could go back and research their cases.

“It doesn’t really tell you anything if you’ve got a report that says the Department of Economic Security had employees on leave for 36,000 hours. That’s a big number, but it doesn’t really tell you the story behind that,” he said.

Flatten did not include in the report the names he obtained of rank-and-file employees whose cases were examined because he said the purpose was to expose inconsistencies in public policy rather than individuals.

“If they catch Joe Blow sleeping on the job and they don’t do anything about it, is it important that it’s Joe Blow?” Flatten said. “Or is it important that the agency caught this guy sleeping on the job and didn’t do anything about it?”

Flatten meticulously organized the massive amount of information he gathered for the report, which becomes evident when he opens a drawer to his filing cabinet and reveals thousands of documents he analyzed over the course the investigation, with each document being carefully indexed and separated into binders so that he could easily locate the source of any particular claim made in his report.

“Unless you go through it well in the beginning, you will never be able to find any of it again,” Flatten said.

Flatten said the most fun part of working on the report was getting to question government officials about the information he had gathered.

“Your average Joe on the street would love to go up to a government official and ask ‘Why do you let this go on?’” he said. “Doing this kind of work allows me to do that. That’s a fun way to make a living.”

Paul Senseman, spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer, was not available for an interview on the matter with the Arizona Capitol Times, but he sent an e-mail noting that Brewer plans to announce a proposal for personnel reform sometime in January.

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