AG determines DES director broke no laws in emails on trip to Lourdes
PHOENIX -- The director of the Department of Economic Security broke no laws in emailing agency staffers about his trip to Lourdes and offering to take their written "special intentions' to the holy shrine, the attorney general's office has concluded.
Paul Watkins, chief of the agency's civil division, acknowledged Tim Jeffries used the state's email system to send out not only a note to all DES employees ahead of his trip but several follow-ups from France, including pictures.
The emails drew a complaint from Madeline Ziegler, a legal fellow of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
She said it crossed a line between government officials engaged in personal activity and providing "credibility or prestige to their religion by using the weight of their government office and government title.' Ziegler said it amounted to compelling staff to track Jeffries' letters for his "personal religious vacation' and was improper use of government email "to recount details of that person religious trip to all employees.
In a response made public Thursday, Watkins sidestepped the question of whether Jeffries' emails endorsed religion. Instead, he concluded that the messages -- even if sent through the state email system -- are "private speech.'
Watkins said there is nothing inherently illegal about state employees using state computers and email for private messages. And he said there also is nothing wrong about people at any workplace discussing their personal religious views.
"A workplace email about a person trip is not an 'exploitation' of 'government power' merely because the workplace is a government agency,' Watkins wrote.
"To say otherwise ultimately would result in a prohibition against (ITALICS) any (ROMAN) government employee from referencing (ITALICS) any (ROMAN) religious belief in (ITALICS) any (ROMAN) email composed on a government computer, regardless of the content or the recipients,' he said.
More to the point, Watkins said a ban on talking about religion but allowing conversation on other personal issue would itself violate the First Amendment.
Ziegler said she does not dispute that people are free to talk about religion in the workplace -- but ``not when they're the head of a state organization and when many of their actions, all combined together, give the overwhelming impression that the department, under their leadership, is a Catholic department.'
In an interview with Capitol Media Services, Jeffries said he does not understand all the fuss.
``This kerfuffle around me going to Lourdes and ... making them aware of my travels and giving them an opportunity to participate directly, indirectly, it's a source of fascination to me,' he said.
Jeffries openly admits he wears his religion on his sleeve and talks about his faith, including in the office.
``It's my First Amendment right to tell you I'm a Roman Catholic, I'm a devout Christian,' he said. ``I believe God has made me to love.'
Jeffries also has a cross on the wall of his personal office. But he rejected the idea that the clearly religious symbol might be intimidating to an employee or someone else who comes to speak with him.
``If I was a bureaucrat, it would be,' he said. ``But I'm not. I'm the anti-bureaucrat.'
That, Jeffries said, comes down to his philosophy as DES chief.
``I shepherd this agency like a multi million-dollar nonprofit,' he said. Anyway, Jeffries said, ``there's still a place for private speech in the workplace, whether it's government or business.'
Ziegler, however, said a line is being crossed, not just with the original letter ahead of the trip but with the updates, complete with photos.
``Presuming that your employees will want to read about your pilgrimage to a Catholic shrine or even have you deliver messages to the shrine for them indicates favoritism towards those religious employees, and a disregard for those who do not share your views,' she wrote in her initial complaint to Jeffries.
``Tasking your assistant with keeping track of those messages on DES time further demonstrates an unconstitutional preference for religion,' Ziegler continued. ``This leads any reasonable observer to conclude that the DES under your leadership endorses religion over nonreligion, and Christianity over all other faiths.'
Walker does not see it that way.
``Mr. Jeffries was planning a personal trip,' he said in the response to Ziegler.
``He talked about his personal involvement in a group conducting a charitable endeavor to help people with serious illness,' Walker said. ``He offered to personally take notes from employees on his trip.'
And Walker said he told employees they should only give him notes if they are ``comfortable' doing so.
``At no time did Mr. Jeffries state that DES is sponsoring or endorsing his emails, his trip, or his beliefs,' Walker wrote.
Legal issues aside, gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss, who also is Catholic, finds nothing improper in anything that Jeffries did.
``His communications are reflective of a very positive, caring, inclusive tone that he's brought to DES, and also his passion for helping others,' Scarpinato said.
``The particular trip he's talking about is one where he went actually to help those in need,' he continued. ``So he actually has a deep passion for the issues this agency deals with, which makes him particularly suited.'
And what of the cross on the office wall?
``I can't see any reason why the governor would have a problem with that,' Scarpinato said.
DES oversees a host of programs from food stamps and welfare 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.
``The governor is very supportive of what he's doing there and of how he's engaging with employees,' Scarpinato said.