Arizona Parks Director Sue Black Again Under Investigation

Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2018 - 9:30am
Updated: Wednesday, July 11, 2018 - 1:25pm
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Craig Harris.

MARK BRODIE: Arizona State Parks Director Sue Black is again under investigation for alleged poor relations with employees. In March of 2017, an investigation found problems with "general management practices" but did not find any reasons to fire her or ask for her resignation. Now at least for top level Arizona Department of Administration employees are conducting staff interviews again about her behavior. Craig Harris, investigative reporter with the Arizona Republic, has been following the story. He's here with us now. Good morning, Craig.

CRAIG HARRIS: Good morning.

BRODIE: So what is going on this time?

HARRIS: Well, this is the third time she's actually come under fire. First time she got into a bit of hot water was shortly after she got hired in 2015. Some employees alleged that they were being treated poorly and they investigated and they corroborated that they were, but no action occurred. Now, you know, this is shortly after Sue Black, a few weeks ago, had fired a woman who was almost close to retirement. The woman had eye cancer and she fired her, and now you've got four top state investigators out there at Parks, which is a relatively small agency, asking employees what's going on. The state is trying to downplay this issue, but they've sent the state H.R. director, the deputy director of the state personnel office, and so employees have told me that they're being asked once again, "How is Sue Black treating employees?".

BRODIE: Well, what's the significance of Department of Administration, which is as you say, basically the state's H.R. department — what's the significance of them being on site, as opposed to maybe the way other investigations have been conducted?

HARRIS: Well I think it shows a lot when you've got basically for the top administrators at a personnel office going out and basically setting up shop and asking employees to come in and say, well, what's going on with the person who's running the show. One thing that I found really interesting, though, is what the employees told me is they're conducting the interviews right next to Sue Black's office. I mean anyone that goes in is really, actually, taking a risk because she can see every employee who's going in to talk to these H.R. folks. So it's kind of a weird setup. On one hand, they're out there trying to get to the bottom of things. On the other hand, they're doing it right in plain sight of the person who they're looking at. Now the state said, well, part of the reason they were out there is that staff got a intimidating letter and there had been graffiti left inside the men's room, and my question was, well, do you really send the state H.R. director and a top executive out to talk about graffiti? So they are asking, they're opening up the doors and letting employees come in and talk about how they've been treated by their director.

BRODIE: As you've written about in the past, Sue Black is not shy about letting employees know that they are at will and they can be fired at any time. So I wonder, have you found that workers are reticent, maybe, to go and talk to the H.R. folks right outside their boss's office?

HARRIS: Well it's been interesting. I've talked to a few employees there at Parks. I've not used their names because they're afraid that if they are identified, they'll be fired. But what I understand is there are folks who are going in and talking. Even though they didn't open it up for people who were out in the field at the parks, people are calling in and letting their voice be heard. So it is kind of an interesting situation that you have these folks that are actually, no pun intended, camped out at the Parks agency and listening to what's going on out there.

LAUREN GILGER: Craig, what about the political implications of this? She was a Ducey appointee, right?

HARRIS: Correct. She came in in 2015, shortly after Doug Ducey became governor.

GILGER: Has he said anything about this current investigation or the ones in the past, for that matter?

HARRIS: Well it's interesting. He's gone completely quiet. In the past, he stood behind Sue Black because she brought in a lot of money. She brought in a lot of revenue. Now some could argue all state parks across the country brought in record revenue because the economy is better and people like going to parks, and our parks here are beautiful. Lately, though, I've asked the governor spokesman Daniel Scarpinato, I've asked his press secretary on the campaign trail, about whether the governor still stands behind Sue Black — nothing. Not returning my calls, no response at all, so the governor has gone very quiet on whether he is supporting Sue Black.

BRODIE: Well it's interesting because as you say, in the past, the response has been, well, she basically she's doing a good job at her job. Is there a certain point, either in state law or just sort of politically that you think that is no longer a good enough answer?

HARRIS: Well, I think you might want to compare it to what's gone on at the national level with Scott Pruitt at the EPA. You know, the Trump administration loved what he was doing and supported him over and over, but it got to a point that with so many negative headlines of Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration finally let him go. I don't know what the governor will do on this or not. He's an extremely loyal person that sticks with people almost to a fault for a long period of time. So I'm not sure what the governor will do on this. Now, he is, you know, if the polls are correct, he could be in a tight election and something like this could play in effect. I've heard from folks who've called me out of the blue who've said, "I'm a Republican or lifelong Republican. I voted for the governor four years ago. I will not vote for him if he keeps Sue Black in this job," and I've heard from probably a half a dozen people who have called me, out of the blue, and told me that. So I think this could become an issue, and when you are going to be in an election where every single vote counts, this could be an issue for the governor.

BRODIE: That's really interesting. We'll have to keep an eye on that going forward. That's Craig Harris, investigative reporter with The Arizona Republic. Craig, always good to see you. Thanks for coming in.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

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