Vance Phillips and Tasya Peterson were impressed with the popularity of a Fox News tweet featuring the indictment of Rep. Ceci Velasquez on charges related to food stamp fraud.
In a June 25 email exchange, the two Department of Economic Security public relations workers marveled that there were 99 retweets in a day. Peterson found it interesting the story accompanying the tweet was the national news organization’s third-most viewed article the previous day.
“Nothing like a good scandal to boost the ratings,” Phillips wrote.
Emails on the subject of the indictment show that Peterson and DES Director Tim Jeffries helped stoke national interest by sending the agency’s press release announcing the indictment to national political news organizations. They also sent email updates to all DES employees about the political fallout for the Democratic lawmaker.
Some DES employees questioned the propriety of the updates and one employee lost his job for it. The agency’s management of the publicity also angered officials with the Attorney General’s Office.
DES Director Tim Jeffries declined an interview request.
Velasquez pleaded guilty Oct. 25 to a misdemeanor count of unlawfully using food stamps. She will be sentenced Dec. 1 to a term of probation, and she has already paid back the $1,728 she is accused of stealing.
Jeffries met with Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff, Kirk Adams, and general counsel, Mike Liburdi, to discuss the indictment shortly before Peterson sent the email announcing it on June 22.
Two hours later she informed Jeffries of a “disturbing call” she got from Ryan Anderson, director of communications for Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose office is prosecuting the case.
She complained that Anderson raised his voice and reprimanded her for mentioning the Attorney General’s Office in the email without coordinating with the prosecutor’s office.
“I told him I was sorry he felt that way, but I was given the direction by Director Jeffries, John Johnson, our Inspector general, and the Governor’s Office, I was doing my job as directed,” Peterson wrote. That portion of the email was redacted by DES, but still visible.
Peterson went on to say in another redacted portion that the DES Office of Inspector General had coordinated with the assistant attorney general handling the case and that Johnson, who is the head of the Attorney General’s Child and Family Protection division, also cleared the press release.
Anderson said he got snarky with Peterson, but he wasn’t belligerent. He said any discussions between Johnson and DES are protected by the attorney and client relationship.
He did say, however, that the attorney general generally has concerns when food stamp recipients, whose identities are confidential under state and federal law, are publicly disclosed.
The press release mentions in the headline and first paragraph that Velasquez stood accused of fraud against the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but it doesn’t expressly say she was a recipient.
Jeffries forwarded Peterson’s message to Liburdi and Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato and called Liburdi to discuss it.
In an email to Scarpinato, Jeffries said Johnson “reviewed” the press release, but Jeffries doesn’t say whether Johnson approved of it or advised against it.
An email from attorney general’s spokeswoman Mia Garcia to her bosses, Brnovich, Johnson and Mary Harris, the prosecutor handling the case, suggests DES blindsided the prosecuting agency.
She forwarded them the DES press release, which she had received minutes earlier.
“Wow!!! They did it anyway,” Garcia wrote.
Garcia said in an interview that any assertion the Attorney General’s Office approved the press release is inaccurate.
Jeffries and Brnovich exchanged emails later that day, with Jeffries thanking Brnovich for his office’s help in getting the case to the grand jury.
“Although one could say this is still early days in the process, today is a good day for our taxpayers and the noble maintenance of the public trust,” Jeffries wrote.
Brnovich said he understood the importance Jeffries and Ducey placed on the case, but there was no need for thanks.
Brnovich added a note of caution.
“Also, as a former line level prosecutor, I’m a big believer that until there’s a conviction, the less we say, the better,” Brnovich wrote. “I hope you understand – an indictment is not a conviction and ethics limit what our office can or should say prior to a conviction.”
By 10 p.m. Jeffries informed Peterson he had just sent the press release to the Drudge Report.
“Let’s be sure to do this whenever we arrest someone,” he wrote. “Please also send our release to Townhall.com, TheHill.com, DailyCaller.com, and Politico.com.”
Peterson replied, noting the coincidence of his email’s timing.
“I am currently submitting to the NY Times, Fox, Politico and The Hill. ;),” she wrote.
Peterson declined an interview request, but she said in an email to the Capitol Times that contacting news outlets with happenings at DES is standard practice.
Velasquez’s defense attorney, Roy Herrera, of Statecraft Law, said it is outrageous the Republican-appointed head of an agency that used its investigative powers to target a Democratic lawmaker would shop around press releases to political news organizations, some of which lean conservative.
“The reason for that is they wanted to gain something from it politically,” Herrera said. “Here we clearly have a political motivation. This was politicized from the beginning.”
Herrera said the political motivations he sees in Jeffries and DES helps in arguing for a mitigated sentence.
“If DES had conducted itself more reasonably, this all probably could have been solved prior to an indictment,” Herrera said. “The outcome here is she’s paying back the money, right, but that could have been done without going through all of this.”
The political fallout for Velasquez was beginning to take shape two days after the press release, and the story was going national.
On June 24, Peterson sent to all employees an email containing a Fox News story with the headline of “Dem Who Opposed Welfare Fraud Measure Indicted for Food Stamp Fraud.”
The story included blistering quotes from Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who sponsored the measure Velasquez opposed, and a representative with a think tank that supported it.
A couple of employees took exception.
“Maybe you could have found an unbiased news story,” wrote DES employee Sheryl Hawkins. “Why does it matter if she is a ‘dem’ if she committed fraud?”
Peterson explained that she was simply keeping her colleagues apprised on the story.
Elizabeth Chavez, an administrative assistant, had a similar concern.
“What this woman did was wrong – very wrong – on many different levels. I just fail to see why it was necessary to include ‘Dem’ in your message. People of all walks of life make bad choices,” Chavez wrote.
Peterson explained that it was the news organization, not DES, who wrote the headline.
Peterson then sent Jeffries breaking news from the Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Capitol Times, reporting that Velasquez was going to end her campaign for re-election.
“THANKS!! Email our colleagues right away,” Jeffries said.
Peterson did and got a response from Andy Hall, who worked in the Division of Aging and Adult Services.
“This is purely politics,” Hall wrote. “It has nothing to do with DES programs.”
Peterson forwarded the message to Jeffries who ordered Hall’s termination within minutes of receiving the email, saying Hall was not part of “The Team” and not very bright either.
At first, Jeffries ordered his dismissal to take place in seven days.
Hall wouldn’t accept Peterson’s explanation that the story had a direct link the DES investigation.
“Actually this is about Democrat party politics. Please stick to DES business,” he wrote.
That seemed to infuriate Jeffries, who cut short Hall’s employment even more, and said in an email he was an idiot. Hall was fired the next business day without explanation.
Herrera said the emails showing how Hall was fired demonstrate Jeffries doesn’t want anyone questioning his decision-making.
“And clearly that decision making is motivated by politics,” Herrera said.