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The head of the Phoenix department charged with safeguarding public dollars was suspended without pay for three days before Thanksgiving after an investigation found he committed “unintentional” discrimination against employees.
His actions also spurred the city to spend about $10,000 on executive coaching classes for him.
The year-long city Equal Opportunity Department (EOD) investigation obtained by Phoenix New Times found that City Auditor Ross Tate had singled out an employee based on her national origin, treated women employees differently, and, in two cases, made comments that would dissuade employees from reporting misconduct.
“While EOD acknowledged that these interactions may have been unintentional on your part, when reviewed collectively they found your actions violated the policy’s anti-discrimination, harassment, and retaliation provisions,” wrote the Human Resources Department in a November 17 disciplinary letter.
The City Auditor Department provides independent investigations and analysis of how City of Phoenix departments are functioning and how public money is being spent. As the head of the department, Tate oversees 24 employees and made a 2019 salary of $172,000.
Reached by email, Tate declined to comment beyond what he said in the report, which New Times obtained under Arizona public records law.
The 37-page report shows that the EOD also investigated 15 additional allegations, but did not substantiate them. Another eight allegations were referred to the Human Resources Department, which found Tate had shown poor judgment but did not find additional bias.
The first substantiated allegation stems from a number of comments Tate made in 2018 and 2019 regarding an employee’s accent and ability to communicate. While the investigation found that Tate often critiqued employees’ communication skills, an incident in which Tate asked the employee — who is from a different country but has lived in the United States for a number of years — if she was familiar with barbecue, led the report to conclude that Tate was treating her differently due to her national origin.
While the report notes there is a legitimate business interest in how well city employees could be understood, Tate appears to have had his struggles with accents of employees — albeit struggles that didn’t discriminate based on ethnicity.
In a 2019 discussion about which of two employees would receive the sooner of two upcoming promotions and which would receive the latter, Tate suggested that the position available sooner should go to the candidate without an accent as he had an easier time understanding them than the other equally qualified employee who had an accent. After an employee reacted negatively to the idea, Tate ended up suggesting they wait so both employees could be promoted at the same time. But that wasn’t only time he struggled with accents. Another person interviewed in the investigation recalled that Tate became agitated after he couldn’t understand a French-Canadian person during a separate training.
Ultimately, the report did not substantiate the claim that people with accents were treated differently overall in the department, citing several people with accents who said they did not believe they were personally treated differently.
The second substantiated allegation found that Tate treated women employees differently from male employees, and stemmed in large part from his close relationship with the only male deputy city auditor, who shared Tate’s Mormon faith. One woman said she hadn’t experienced any bias personally, but that Tate would talk to the male deputy “like there was no one else in the room,” even when the three female deputies were present. Generally, some employees interviewed for the report cited examples where Tate was more inclusive of male employees, by greeting them or thanking them to a degree he did not do with female employees.
This state of affairs appears to have led to a breakdown in trust among some members of the 25-person staff, particularly among the deputy city auditors. Redactions make it difficult to ascertain the extent of complaints, but it appears that one of the deputies lodged multiple complaints alleging that she was being discriminated against based on her age and gender. While those complaints were not ultimately substantiated, they detail conflict between Tate and an employee meant to help lead the department.
A number of the unsubstantiated allegations of bias, such as the male deputy city auditor having more employees report to him, had a ready explanation or were simply miscommunications, but, as the report documents, were ultimately viewed as a larger part of the substantiated bias. The report also notes rumors that women were treated unfairly had been circulating within the department.
The turmoil was likely exacerbated by two incidents that led to a third substantiated allegation against Tate, regarding retaliation. In the first incident, Tate declared in a 2018 meeting that he played favorites and that anyone with an issue could file a discrimination report. In the second, during a 2019 discussion about how reported misconduct on the city’s hotline would become a public record, he joked that he would now know about complaints against him. At the time, the group he was speaking with included an employee who had filed a complaint against him.
Tate later told the investigator he meant “favorites” as people who were good at their job and he that did not know that the employee he made the comment to had filed a complaint against him, but the Human Resources Department noted that such a comment could have a chilling effect on employees reporting harassment.
In the end, more than a year after the initial complaint was raised in October 2019, Tate was suspended for three days. The disciplinary letter notes that he had been receiving “executive coaching,” which it said had been beneficial.
As of last week, this executive coaching had cost taxpayers a bit less than $10,000, a city spokesperson said.
Tate came to the City of Phoenix from Maricopa County in 2017. A press release at the time noted that he had more than 30 years of experience as an auditor, including 22 years heading Maricopa County’s auditing division.
Update: City spokesperson Nickolas Valenzuela got back to New Times after publication on the question of the lengthy of the investigation, saying it didn’t follow the usual timeline because additional allegations were raised during the investigation.
“This resulted in an expansion to the number of witnesses that needed to be interviewed including a number of witnesses who were no longer employed with the city,” he wrote. “As such, coordination of interview schedules were challenges and additional interviews with the respondent was required.”
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