Three agency directors appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey were forced out by the governor in 2016 amid concerns they acted out of line right under the governor’s nose.
First it was the Arizona Lottery director.
When Tony Bouie resigned in January, he did so to avoid being a “distraction,” the Governor’s Office said at the time. He left two days following a report in the Phoenix New Times detailing accusations that an anonymous tipster alerted top government officials in December 2015 that Bouie routinely used state vehicles for his own personal use and may have fired some employees of the Arizona State Lottery in order to hire his friends.
New Times also reported Bouie gave unfair advantages to some vendors and used multimillion-dollar vendor contracts as “slush funds.” Bouie and the Ducey administration agreed it was in “the best interests of the state” that he step down,” Ducey Spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said at the time.
Then it was the head of the Department of Juvenile Corrections that had to go.
In September, Ducey made no qualms about the director’s departure — Donna Marie Markley was forced out. Markley, a holdover from former Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration, resigned after The Arizona Republic reported she’d improperly fired employees, including an English teacher at Adobe Mountain School who’d been battling late-stage breast cancer.
Finally, no departed agency head drew as much attention as Tim Jeffries, whose resignation in November came only after more than a year of news reports about the eccentric director suggesting that something was amiss at the Department of Economic Security, one of the state’s largest agencies.
Jeffries made a name for himself by bragging of firing “bullies” and “liars” from the state’s welfare agency. But it was reports that he’d fired hundreds of state workers, many with exemplary service records, under those guises that he was ultimately escorted from state property by the governor’s administration.
Staffers from previous gubernatorial administrations agreed that with the size and scope of Arizona government, problems will always arise.
Ducey’s administration, they say, is no different.
A complicated decision
It’s the job of Henry Darwin, the governor’s chief operating officer, to oversee the roughly 35 state agencies and coordinate with their directors. Since he was named COO in 2015, Darwin said he has implemented an “intentional management” system designed to review and score agencies for what he called their business success, or failure.
Darwin is also now responsible for overseeing DES — Ducey appointed him as interim director following Jeffries’ departure — and once was head of the Department of Environmental Equality.
As chief operating officer, Darwin communicates at least weekly with all agency heads. He’s one of several Ducey staffers on a conference call with agency directors each Monday. Darwin also meets personally with two agency directors each week, holds monthly reviews with each agency to track their progress according to his scorecard system, and is also a part of the governor’s quarterly meetings with his top staffers and agency heads.
With so much regular contact, how did it take so long for the governor to discover what was going wrong at DES, and then longer still to make a leadership change? Darwin said the decision to remove Jeffries was far more complicated than may have it appeared.
“There were some really positive things (Jeffries) was doing. And we had to weigh the positive things he was doing there against some of the other expectations we had of him,” Darwin said.
“That’s really why it took as long as it did, is that we wanted to make sure that, because of all the positive things he was doing there, that the things that we were hearing about were true… And we wanted to balance that against the benefits that he was providing,” Darwin added.
Darwin said that the governor’s staff initially grew concerned with Jeffries performance at DES due to questions being asked by The Arizona Republic, before the paper’s initial stories of Jeffries’ firings broke, as well as internal sources in state government.
“There’s no denying the fact that Craig Harris’ stories played a role in our evaluating what was going on there. It caused us to look in certain areas,” Darwin said. “But we had some concerns, primarily with the HR practices there.”
Unheeded warning signs
Lobbyist Barry Aarons, who served in former Gov. Fife Symington’s administration, chalked up Jeffries as an anomaly, and one that had to go. Still, Aarons said he’s not surprised that Ducey had Jeffries’ back for so long.
”You’re going to be supportive until you realize (a director’s) not just doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” Aarons said.
Ducey’s administration dismissed initial criticisms of Jeffries in media reports from 2015 that hinted of the scandal to come, potential warning signs that went unheeded.
The governor himself told DES employees at a town hall in October 2015 that he was “skeptical about what I read in the press” about Jeffries and the firing of state workers. Scarpinato, Ducey’s spokesman, said at the time the governor viewed Jeffries as a model for how his appointed agency heads should conduct themselves.
“(Ducey) didn’t bring in people from outside state government to do things the way they’ve always been done. If we could clone (Jeffries), we would,” Scarpinato said
Lobbyist Doug Cole, who also served under Symington, agreed that governors engage in a give-and-take with their appointed agency directors. It’s a director’s role to carry out the governor’s vision, but a governor must provide some leeway for agency heads to accomplish that vision.
“You got to support your guys. He supported him,” Cole said of Ducey’s initial reactions to reports on Jeffries. “You got to let your team know that you’re going to support them. But you need to send the message to your team that they’ve got to have your back.”
Darwin said Ducey holds the highest expectations for his agency directors, but to ensure their success, the governor also provides them with “as much support as we can.”
“But that does not mean we sacrifice quality, that we sacrifice certain expectations that can’t be forgotten,” Darwin said.
The blame game
What’s more important to Darwin, and to staffers who once occupied the Ninth Floor, is not necessarily the scandal itself, but how an administration responds to it.
“We want to find a way of identifying the root cause of all this and resolve it with the smallest amount of additional bureaucracy as possible,” Darwin said.
In an operation the size of Arizona state government, Symington said it’s inevitable that there will be some personnel problems at the agencies.
“It’s just a fact of life. There’s nothing unusual about it,” Symington said. “Sometimes everybody ends up being totally surprised. There’s a problem and an issue regarding an individual who’s the head of an agency and it just sort of pops up out of nowhere.”
Dennis Burke, chief of staff under former Gov. Janet Napolitano, emphasized that it can be difficult to determine who will be a good director and who will be a bad one.
“I mean, it’s one of the most important aspects of governing, but it’s difficult,” Burke said. “It’s really difficult because it’s hard to determine whether the person’s going to pan out the way you anticipated it.”
Symington said he used to call the seemingly random scandals “‘orbital nuclear weapons,’ which you can’t see but they land in your backyard occasionally. And then the blame game starts and everybody’s pointing fingers, which is fine, but that’s not constructive nor correct,” he said.
“These things just happen. But the key is how you deal with them, which means that try to be decisive,” Symington said. “And certainly Governor Ducey’s been very hands-on and decisive in the decisions he’s been making regarding the state agencies.”
Symington said one of his policy advisers’ most important jobs was staying on top of what was happening at their agencies.
“I basically delegated the responsibility of oversight to key members of my staff, and then if there were any problems brewing they would bring them to me, and I would engage more directly to try and help resolve any issues,” Symington said.
Napolitano advisers kept her abreast of problems
Ducey’s policy advisers play a similar role. As director of ADEQ, Darwin said he met weekly with an adviser from the Ninth Floor. Some policy advisers spend more time on the ground in the agencies under their purview than they do in the Executive Tower, he added.
Napolitano used a similar system, according to Burke. Her advisers were “empowered” to keep the governor abreast of actions at agencies. Napolitano also appointed both a director and deputy director, rather than allow directors to choose their own top deputy, Burke said.
Having spent the four years before she became governor as the attorney general, which is the lawyer for state agencies, Burke said Napolitano came to the Ninth Floor with a good sense of what worked and what didn’t work at the agencies. In many cases, she appointed her former assistant attorneys general to run the agencies.
Even so, sometimes directors just don’t pan out.
“You’re always going to have people that don’t work out for whatever reason,” said former Napolitano staffer Mike Haener. “So there’s always that. But the only way that you can kind of, again, stay on top of what agencies are doing is having the people who work in the Governor’s Office have those conversations and interactions with them.”
Ducey, now halfway through one term, drew praise for reacting appropriately when the time came to force what some called “rogue” agency heads from their posts.
Though a subsequent investigation of Bouie by the Attorney General’s Office resulted in no charges, Bouie’s quick resignation ensured that the scandal did not linger at the state Lottery office.
In the month after The Republic’s initial report on Markley’s firings at the Department of Juvenile Corrections, Ducey ordered at least one employee be reinstated, and eventually sent Markley packing.
The governor’s damage control at DES began even before Jeffries was forced out — the governor first stripped Jeffries of his power to fire anyone in October. And since Jeffries’ departure, the Arizona Department of Administration completed an investigation into more 250 complaints by former employees statewide, and announced 40 former DES workers will be offered their jobs back, or offered a comparable position if their old post has been filled.
Best practices, particularly when it comes to human resources, are still being reviewed and modified for improvement at DES with the help of ADOA, Darwin said.
Though reports about Jeffries’ actions while in charge drew questions about the types of employees he’d fired — an apparent trend of older employees who were close to retirement — Darwin said nothing in the numbers themselves was abnormal.
“What was alarming . . . was that the practices that were being used in order to perform those firings were not in line with our expectations,” Darwin said. “What we have done now is made sure those expectations are very clear to every director.”
— Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.