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North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Ricky Diaz leaving

DHHS Communications Director Ricky Diaz is leaving the department to take a public relations job in Washington.
January 9, 2014 8:02:35 PM PST
Just days after revealing a major Medicaid mistake, the spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Department is leaving the job.

Ricky Diaz has been a lightning rod for controversy since his hiring, and now, he's moving on to a job with a communications firm in Washington D.C.

When news broke that Diaz was leaving, DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos put out a glowing statement which said, "Ricky is a bright, energetic leader and a strong communicator. I thank him for his hard work and dedication, and his efforts to increase the efficiency and streamline the operations of the Office of Communications. His work will leave a lasting impression on the Department. We will miss him, but I know he will achieve great things working in our nation's capital."

However, people on both sides of the aisle told ABC11 that they had a very different take.

At just 24 years old, Diaz was, by a distance, the youngest and least experienced communications director DHHS has seen in years.  He had run Gov. Pat McCrory's communications team when he was running for office and got the job at DHHS a couple months after the elections.

"Ricky Diaz will, I think, be remembered partially for being an example of questionable decisions that the McCrory administration made early in its tenure in North Carolina," said Chris Fitzsimon, with the liberal NC Policy Watch.

Fitzsimon says under Diaz's leadership access to information at DHHS has been limited.

"[They've been] far less than forthcoming with public records, public information, and with access," said Fitzsimon.

That's a common complaint heard from reporters with Diaz often at the center.

"I've never had a phone call returned ever by him," said Sarah Ovaska, with NC Policy Watch.

Veteran journalist Sarah Ovaska broke the story about a huge raise Diaz got when he moved to DHHS. His pay was $85,000.

"He actually became a very large part of the story around DHHS," said Ovaska.

Ovaska's story opened a floodgate of investigative reporting that uncovered myriad problems at DHHS. With food stamps, the Medicaid payment system, and most recently, a Medicaid card mix-up that violated health care privacy laws.

Through it all, reporters confronted a communications staff, led by Diaz, which rarely offered up information.

"Reporters were forced to use the law to get information that generally would just be handed out," said Ovaska.

Even conservatives were not quick to defend Diaz.  Some even suggested his departure makes sense, for him and the administration.

"Having him out of that job is going to at least stop reminding people of this blot on the McCrory record," said Mitch Kokai, with the John Locke Foundation.

Diaz's last day will be Jan. 24.

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