DHHS, Ricky Diaz and not knowing what you don't know

January 15, 2014 

We may never know for sure whether Ricky Diaz jumped or was pushed. But we can hope Gov. Pat McCrory and his administration learned something from Diaz’s short but exciting stint as spokesman for North Carolina’s largest and most controversial state agency.

Diaz was communications director for the state Department of Health and Human Services. You’ve heard about the agency a lot since the McCrory folks took over. Life has not been a bowl of cherries there. More a bowl of pits.

There was the debacle of NC FAST, the computer system that was supposed to streamline the way food stamp applicants got their funding. Last summer, it lived up to an alternate meaning of its own name, incorrectly locking out thousands of recipients and forcing them to use food banks. Turns out, it still is, despite the frequent assertions from the communications director that all the problems were fixed.

NC Tracks, another new computer system, was even worse, denying millions of dollars in legitimate Medicaid reimbursements to the state’s doctors and hospitals. Right in the middle of that mess, Diaz and his staff issued a release headlined “NC Tracks is On Track.” In truth, it was suffering frequent derailments.

Those were just two of the challenges during Diaz’s eight-month tenure as the department’s chief spokesman and apologist.

Diaz wasn’t just the storyteller. He was part of the story, one of several young guns hired by the McCrory administration and then given a spectacular raise. In his case, he got a $23,000 salary bump, to $85,000, a few months after he left his former job as spokesman for McCrory’s campaign.

McCrory has repeatedly insisted Diaz was worth every penny, that he’s one of the smartest, most capable people the governor has ever come across and that he was completely qualified for the job.

The kindest spin is that the governor is remarkably naive. A young man at 24, no matter how brilliant, still doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He still hasn’t had the experience to understand all the consequences of his own decisions, let alone those of the people running the state’s largest bureaucracy. When I was 24, I was learning the fundamentals of my business. I was two years out of college; five years out of being a teenager. I wasn’t any more ready for a top leadership position than Diaz was.

I don’t know if Diaz’s departure was related to this, but his exit came just five days after he gave reporters false information about the latest DHHS screw-up.

The department inadvertently mailed the Medicaid cards for 49,000 children to the wrong addresses, thus breaching their privacy and the federal laws about their right to it. It was another clumsy attempt at damage control by a chief spokesman who wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to understand that deliberate deception always, always, always blows up in your face.

His boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos (who is old enough to know what she doesn’t know but took a job in which she had little experience anyway), said, “His work will leave a lasting impression on the department.” She must be a student of irony.

Diaz is off to a new job in Washington, working for a company that does communications strategy work for Republican candidates. “It was an opportunity that presented itself and one that I can’t pass up,” he said.

That leaves an opportunity that McCrory and Wos shouldn’t pass up: Replace Diaz with someone who has lived long enough, and worked in the business long enough, to be qualified for the job.

And if they can do that, maybe they can repeat the process. Often.

MCT Information Services

Tim White is the editorial page editor of the Fayetteville Observer.

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