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Former DES head drops libel suit against state

In this Oct. 22, 2015, photo, former Department of Economic Security director Tim Jeffries stands outside his former office, adorned with a "Director J :)" sign. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

In this Oct. 22, 2015, photo, former Department of Economic Security director Tim Jeffries stands outside his former office, adorned with a “Director J :)” sign. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

The former director of the Department of Economic Security is dropping the libel lawsuit he filed against the state after he was fired.

Tim Jeffries told Capitol Media Services Tuesday he still believes that a report prepared by the Department of Public Safety about him and his conduct is filled with lies. These range from statements that he carried a gun on state property to the theft of state property, specifically ammunition from DES inventory.

But Jeffries said a successful lawsuit was dependent on being able to show not just that the report had lies but that those statements were part of an effort to discredit him for trying to expose waste and mismanagement.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Rosa Mroz would not allow him to pursue the documents. And last week the Arizona Supreme Court refused to disturb that ruling.

That, said Jeffries, effectively ended any reason to pursue the lawsuit.

“It’s a very, very high bar for a public official to prove defamation,” he said.

“Our whole thing was that the motive for defaming him was to keep him from disclosing that he had found corruption in the governor’s office and the reaction was to defame him, ” said attorney Tom Horne. But he said the court ruled that motive was irrelevant.

“So without the motive, the case lost a lot of its value,” he said.

Jeffries, who ran DES in 2015 and 2016 until he was forced out, said he was investigating Hacienda HealthCare over reports of poor care and fraudulent billings. He said that a sexual assault of a patient at the facility by an employee never would have happened had state officials closed the facility as he had recommended.

The issue with HEA+, he said, had to do with what was supposed to be a 24-month contract for $37 million to develop a social services eligibility system. When he was fired, Jeffries said, it already had run for 52 months at a cost of $142 million.

Jeffries said if he was guilty of anything it was “political naivete” that “people making a ton of money off the state, whether right or wrong, were going to start working against me.”

From the state’s perspective, however, that had nothing to do with his dismissal from his $215,250-a-year post.

Ducey fired Jeffries following a series of controversies, the last being reports that he flew to Nogales on a state plane to take several staffers out drinking at a 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.

The governor then directed DPS to inventory all weapons and ammunition at the agency. That resulted in the seizure of 55 handguns and nearly 89,000 rounds of ammunition stored in the basement.

According to DPS, the amount of ammunition was three or four times what a large police department might need in a year and “may reasonably be described as excessive.” Investigators also said they could not find about 4,000 rounds.

It was the statements in that report that Jeffries said were libelous.

In some ways, attorneys for the state never actually argued that what was in the report was true.

Instead, they told a judge that anyone filing a claim for libel under Arizona law must allege facts showing a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff was published and that the statement resulted in injury.

“The allegations within the complaint, even taken as true, do not meet these required elements,” said attorney Daniel Dowd.

He said the DPS report presented individual interview accounts along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents on which its conclusions were based. Dowd said the report made note of when DPS received conflicting evidence, when it could not independently substantiate allegations, and when allegations were disputed.”

“DPS outlined the facts available to it, thus making it clear that the challenged statements represent its own interpretation of those facts and leaving the reader free to draw his own conclusions,” the attorney told a judge, adding that “DPS conclusions in the audit report are protected by the First Amendment and are not actionable as a matter of law.”

Jeffries was involved in several controversial issues at DES before the plane trip to Nogales that finally got him fired.

One involves revelations that Jeffries had fired close to 500 workers, including many who had previously received high evaluations and even raises. That led to 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 the governor even set up a process of allowing those who already were let go to petition to get their jobs back.

In 2016, Jeffries came under scrutiny for emailing staffers about his trip to Lourdes and offering to take their written “special intentions” to the holy shrine.

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, ultimately defeated, would have allowed for the recreational use of marijuana.

Jeffries made an unsuccessful bid for state Senate in 2018, coming in second in a three-way Republican primary to incumbent Michelle Ugenti-Rita.

 

 

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