One of the most interesting comments about this week’s announcement that Ricky Diaz was leaving his post as communications director of the scandal-plagued N.C. Department of Health and Human Services came from the department’s embattled leader, Secretary Aldona Wos. In a statement thanking Diaz for his service to DHHS, Wos said that his work “will leave a lasting impression on the Department.”
It is hard to argue with that, though changing one word in Wos remarks would make it a perfect characterization of Diaz’s tenure.
His work leaves a lasting impression OF the Department.
The 24-year-old Diaz came to DHHS in April after serving briefly in Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office after working on his campaign and news of his $23,000 raise and salary of $85,000 created a firestorm of criticism of Wos and McCrory.
And Diaz wasn’t the only one. Several other DHHS employees including the Department’s policy director, also a 24-year-old former campaign worker, received a big pay raises in year at DHHS that was marked by a series of scandals and high profile resignations.
Controversial Medicaid Director Carol Steckel left her job after eight months. Wos’ Chief of Staff Thomas Adams left after only one month on the job and collected a $37,000 severance package when he departed.
Then there was early childhood director Diana Lightfoot who resigned her post before her first day on the job after her controversial past came to light.
And it hasn’t just been questionable personnel decisions that sparked controversy. Diaz’s announcement that he was leaving came just a few days after he apparently misled the media and the public about when department officials learned they had sent the wrong Medicaid cards with private health information to 48,000 people.
The misinformation has been a hallmark of the past year at DHHS, whether it’s the sugar-coating of serious problems with the systems that process food stamps for eligible families and payments to medical providers or Wos’ bizarre claim that Insurance Commission Wayne Goodwin made the decision not to expand Medicaid, when it was McCrory and legislative leaders who decided.
Wos hired top officials on lucrative personal services contracts, one of them an employee of her husband’s company and bristled when people suggested that might be a problem.
When DHHS officials weren’t shading the truth, they weren’t talking at all. On at least two occasions, reporters described bodyguards preventing them from asking Wos questions after her public appearances — which have grown increasingly rare.
The office that Diaz ran also routinely put up roadblocks for the media too, failing to return calls, ignoring simple and straightforward requests for public records. It wasn’t like they didn’t have the staff. Diaz created a 20-person marketing and public relations team according to a memo released last year.
One of the stories about Diaz’s resignation said that he ran the department in campaign mode, which gets to part of the problem. People working for campaigns are paid to spin everything in the most favorable light.
People working in state government are supposed to be working for everybody in the North Carolina and have a responsibility to provide public information, whether it’s politically beneficial to the administration or not.
It would be naïve not to expect some shading or spinning of the news, but DHHS officials have gone well beyond that in the last year and the credibility of the administration has suffered.
Diaz and his colleagues at DHHS have created quite an impression of the department indeed.
In a perfect world, Wos and her boss Gov. McCrory would use Diaz’s departure to change the culture at the department, and bring some sunshine and transparency to replace the politicalspeak and paranoia.
Don’t hold your breath.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch