Debbie Moak, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.
Debbie Moak, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, worked closely with the group that helped defeat Proposition 205 in November.
That much is not in dispute. But did Moak use the resources of her office — including her work time — improperly to campaign against the marijuana-legalization measure?
Moak denies it, but e-mails New Times obtained from the governor’s office under Arizona’s public-records law show that to some extent she did.
Moak used her state e-mail account to help plan the opposition campaign, albeit minimally, and records indicate that she used at least some time during normal business hours to communicate with other opposition-group campaign workers. Her staff sometimes helped out, too.
Moak insists that no matter what it looks like, she didn’t campaign on work time.
For instance, at at 3:48 p.m. on Wednesday, February 17, Moak used her office e-mail account to instruct Seth Leibsohn, chair of the opposition group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, and other respondents to switch to her personal e-mail to discuss “ARDP Advocacy Meetings.”
Moak says the discussion did not continue until after work hours.
“I’m smarter than that,” she told New Times in October, before the governor’s office released the e-mails. “Ask my staff: I would never use state time.”
At that time, Moak said she used private time or vacation time when helping out the campaign during work hours.
In an interview this week with New Times, Moak elaborated on her position, saying she logged the time only when she took vacation hours for campaigning, which she did whenever she made an appearance or speech during work hours.
“I’m trying to be as transparent as possible,” Moak says. “I have nothing to hide. I know the difference between using my state time and personal time.”
The records indicate that in working with the ARDP to defeat Prop 205, Moak walked a fine line between activism and violating a law that prohibits using state resources to influence an election.
According to an official opinion issued last year by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, when it comes to non-elected officials such as Moak, “this prohibition … generally applies to the use of a public employee’s time during normal working hours.”
ARDP’s website counts Moak as one of its “representatives.”
New Times requested a sampling of Moak’s e-mails in late September, after Tim Jeffries, who at the time was director of the state’s Department of Economic Security, sent an anti-Prop-205 e-mail message to his 7,500-member staff.
Governor Doug Ducey fired Jeffries last month because of the director’s flamboyant and callous termination policy, which New Times exposed last year.
Aside from Ducey, who appointed Moak to her post last year, Moak was the highest-profile state official to speak out against the ballot initiative, which would have made marijuana legal for adults 21 and older and created retail cannabis stores. While elected officials have no “off” time and therefore can tout a campaign as they please, public employees don’t have that freedom, according to Brnovich’s July 30, 2015, opinion, which the attorney general based on a 2013 update of the anti-campaigning law.
The opinion states that “the prohibition on campaigning also generally applies to the use of a public employee’s time during normal working hours, as that time is a public resource that has value. Employees’ time spent outside of normal working hours is not a public resource.”
Following inquiries by New Times in September about Jeffries’ anti-Prop-205 e-mail, Brnovich’s office sent an official statement asserting that, for public employees, “Any communication should be carefully reviewed to determine whether there is a use of public resources, and if so, to insure those resources are not used for the purpose of influencing the outcome of elections in a non-impartial manner.”
Moak’s advocacy against marijuana legalization is by no means surprising.
She and her husband, one-time Congressional candidate Steve Moak, are famous in the substance-abuse-treatment industry and are familiar to supporters of marijuana legalization. In 1999, inspired by their struggles with their son’s cocaine problem, the Moaks founded an anti-addiction nonprofit firm, notMYkid, then bought a company that made drug-testing kits.
Critics have suggested that the couple used the nonprofit as a marketing ploy to sell their drug-testing kits. Whatever the case, they sold the company, First Check, in 2007 for $25 million.
Leibsohn, a friend of the Moaks, is the chair of notMYkid.
Moak, a former schoolteacher, says she earns no money from the sale of drug-testing kits for any company. She says her motivation stems from an honest desire to help people with substance-abuse addictions, especially children. Her advocacy against drug legalization, she says, stems from one simple motivation.
“I have a personal connection for it,” she says. “It’s my personal passion for it.”
Fighting drug addiction is part of Moak’s job as director of GOYFF, along with matching people with volunteer programs and faith-based initiatives. The issue of marijuana legalization blurred with the general fight against substance abuse, a social scourge that most would like to see reduced. With her background, Moak is a prime example of that blurring.
But the prohibition on using state time for campaigning does not contain any exemption for personal passion.
Below are some telling examples of Moak’s use of e-mail and likely use of state time:
• In an e-mail time-stamped 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, August 18, 2016, to Amy Bass, the Tucson coordinator of the Pima Community Prevention Coalition, ARDP coalitions director Megan Fitzgerald writes that she “spoke with Debbie Moak this morning about getting the prevention communities involved in our efforts.”
Because the Pima group holds federal grants, Fitzgerald writes, it would be “safer to have ARDP step out and you and Debbie handle it from here.” Fitzgerald goes on to say that “unfortunately, though, the planning aspect must be handled through non-campaign avenues.”
Bass’ use of the word safer might mean the strategy sessions wouldn’t run afoul of the federal Hatch Act, upon which Arizona’s prohibition on campaigning by public employees is based. Having Moak as a “non-campaign avenue,” then, would be a boon, because she was somewhat distanced from ARDP.
Neither Fitzgerald nor Bass returned a call from New Times requesting comment.
Bass responded at 9:47 p.m. expressing confusion, because she’d been told that Leibsohn and “another gentleman” from ARDP’s public-relations firm, Axiom Public Affairs, would be speaking at a Pima CPC event.
“I am confused if it is Axiom or ARDP that should not be speaking to” other substance-abuse coalitions, Bass wrote to Fitzgerald, copying Moak on the message. “As we discussed — the Goal of this was to educate Prevention Coalitions on the Harms and Consequences messaging that we can use safely so that we do not cross over into any area that would not be allowed, being that we are funded by public tax dollars as a nonprofit. In light of your response — I am unclear as to what we should be doing now, or not doing.”
“Debbie — can you please help us here?” Bass goes on, emphasizing that it was important to get more training on the issue to help “multiply the impact” against the ballot measure. “Do you have someone at the GOYFF that can come and help train folks? What do you suggest?”
Moak replied, cc’ing Fitzgerald, at 6:30 a.m. the next day, a Friday: “Let’s get on the phone today. Can you call my cell this am? Are you available about 8 am or later this afternoon?”
In a subsequent e-mail, Moak wrote, “The only time I’m tied up today is 11-2.”
• Moak and a staff member used state e-mail and apparent work time on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, to plan an anti-Prop-205 talk with Leibsohn for a September 17 event at the Phoenix Convention Center.
At 9:23 that morning, Barbara Nicholson-Brown, founder and organizer of the annual Art of Recovery Expo, emailed one of Moak’s employees, GOYFF special-operations manager Deborrah Miller, having already discussed the possibility of Moak and Leibsohn speaking.
“When you get the OK that Debbie and Seth will be at the Expo I would love to get head shots for the home page and promote them being there,” Nicholson-Brown wrote.
Miller instructed her to provide her with information for Moak and Leibsohn, including the expected length of each speech and the suggested topics.
“Debbie has agreed to speak and is confirming Seth, we just need the info,” Miller wrote.
At 9:49 a.m., Nicholson-Brown replied that the talks would be a half-hour each “and perhaps they can end it together.”
“They were quite dynamic together on the John Hook show I viewed,” Nicholson-Brown wrote, referring to an April 2016 appearance on Fox 10 News (KSAZ-TV). “I am fired (bad word choice there) up about this pot thing and hope we can all rally around the [sic] not passing it in November.” [Boldface in original email.]
Ten minutes later, Miller forwarded the e-mail chain to Moak. At 11:24 a.m., Moak sent it along to Leibsohn, asking if he could book a presentation to speak with her at the expo. Leibsohn forwarded the chain without comment to Adam Deguire, Daniel Stefanski, and Mara Mellstrom.
Deguire, who was ARDP’s campaign manager at the time, runs Axiom Public Affairs with other Ducey-connected insiders including Jim Norton and Sean Noble. He took over as ARDP chair after Leibsohn left the group without public explanation a few weeks before November’s election. Stefanski works for southern Arizona GOP Congressman Trent Franks and the right-wing Center for Arizona Policy. Mellstrom, ARDP’s deputy campaign manager, was hired this month by Ducey as a policy advisor. She also worked on this year’s successful Prop 123 campaign, which Ducey pushed as a way to provide more money for schools without raising taxes.
Moak, whom Leibsohn cc’ed on the forwarded email, told the group of email recipients at 11:31 a.m., “please respond on my personal email. Thank you.”
Nicholson-Brown tells New Times that Leibsohn appeared at the expo as planned on Saturday, September 17, and that he and Moak spoke against Prop 205 before a crowd of 6,000 people.
“She really talked from the heart, and she talked about why they should vote no,” Nicholson-Brown says, adding that the expo didn’t pay either speaker.
• On at least two occasions, Miller forwarded marijuana-related news articles to Moak that Moak then sent on to Leibsohn.
Miller refused to speak with New Times about the e-mails, saying she’d pass along a message to GOYFF’s spokesman, Sam Burba. Burba didn’t return the message.
• John Cocca, director of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control, asked Moak on December 18, 2015, for Leibsohn’s e-mail address.
“I need to pick his brain on the marijuana issue,” he wrote. At 8:42 a.m., she replied, asking Cocca to call her.
Cocca tells New Times that his question for Leibsohn “had to do with another person I know” in substance-abuse prevention and had nothing to do with the campaign.
• ARDP worker Kelly Molique forwarded a message on February 7, 2016, from a supporter who was excited to receive an ARDP donation solicitation from Ducey and retired Arizona U.S. Senator Jon Kyl.
Moak e-mailed Molique and the supporter the next morning, asking them to “please continue to use my personal e-mail.”
As New Times has detailed, Ducey excelled as ARDP’s behind-the-scenes fundraiser. After election day, when Prop 205 failed by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent, the ARDP had spent about $5 million and had $740,000 left in the bank.
Moak reiterates that she only used personal time for the campaign work.
“I’m so busy here with my job — it’s more than a full day,” she says.
Moak says she waited to talk about Prop 205 until the end of the workday and would return ARDP calls in her car (using hands-free dialing, she emphasizes). She attended all of her anti-205 speaking engagements on weekends or used vacation time. Moak says she doesn’t know the total amount of time she devoted to the campaign.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s spokesman, does not believe the e-mails show that Moak used state time for the campaign. In fact, he says, they prove precisely the opposite, given the repeated requests that people switch to personal e-mail.
“She was clear with people,” he says. “I think she did everything appropriate here.”
The law says state agencies and other public entities “shall not spend or use public resources to influence an election, including the use or expenditure of monies, accounts, credit, materials, equipment, buildings, facilities, vehicles, postage, telecommunications, computer hardware and software, web pages and personnel and any other thing of value of the public entity.”
Moak’s apparent use of work time is “definitely fishy,” says Sandefeur, a lawyer and author.
“She crossed the line. The question is how far she crossed the line,” says Sandefeur, noting that the prohibition on campaigning sometimes falls into a gray area because public employees are private citizens on their own time, with the right to work on a political campaign.
“I wish the law could even be stronger than it is,” Sandefeur adds. “It would be doing taxpayers a much better service.”
Read Debbie Moak’s e-mails regarding Proposition 205 and related issues: