Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

March 30, 2007


Host: Steve Goldstein

Journalists Roundtable


  • Don't miss HORIZON's weekly roundtable where local reporters get a chance to review the week's top stories.
Guests:
  • Mary Jo Pitzl - Arizona Republic
Category: Journalists Roundtable

View Transcript
Steve Goldstein:
Good evening. I'm Steve Goldstein and this is the journalists roundtable. Joining me are Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic, Dennis Welch of the East Valley Tribune and Matt Benson of the Arizona Republic. Welcome all. The Arizona veterans home is shrouded in controversy. Its director resigned amid reports of neglect and substandard cares. What's latest development?

Dennis Welch:
The latest development is that it appears the governor's staff actually knew about some of the abuses and neglect going on at the home. About six weeks before the governor was actually, the governor says she was briefed on this at first so this kind of puts into light the time line and were they slow to react and that kind of issue.

Steve Goldstein:
You broke this on the east valley tribune website.

Dennis Welch:
We talked to Susan Girard directly and she had contacted Napolitano's chief of staff directly on February 9, which is the same day that the department of health services investigators did a routine audit or inspection of the veteran home. She said she had a phone conversation that day and in the ensuing days after that over the weekend there were several emails that went back and forth between members of the governor's staff and the department of health services officials.

Steve Goldstein:
Matthew, some background?

Matthew Benson:
Basically these emails show her office, at least two members within her office, three members rather, I should say, were aware of some of the specific instances of some of the neglect issues within the veterans home, patients who were, staff members were not responding to their calls for help or for service, for assistance. Patients who were smoking and in some cases their clothes were burned or singed. They were untainted. The instances were deemed serious enough that basically staff that were there inspecting the home wouldn't leave until they were taken care of that weekend.

Steve Goldstein:
Mary Jo, anything to add on that?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Today's developments raise the question if this was known back I believe the second week of February by top staffers on the ninth floor but that didn't get to the governor, who else is on ninth floor what, does the governor say?

Dennis Welch:
I talked to the governor's press person and was also in on that information about what was going on at the home. She told me that she didn't tell the governor because she just flat out forgot about the emails that were going and flat out forgot about that correspondence. She said she didn't remember.

Steve Goldstein:
We are talking about a governor who is known to be on top of things like that. Plausible deniability there?

Dennis Welch:
I mean certainly, in the past in certain cases, I mean, she has been said, listen, I can't know everything that's going on in this state government. You know, it's such a huge machine, so certainly I mean she's used this kind of argument in the past.

Matthew Benson:
Well, and in that regard there is a huge amount of information that comes to the governor's office. That's something that her staff have said by way of excuse in this matter. They say, listen, we hear about all kinds of audits and matters. Did this rise to the level to notify the governor? Well, apparently at the time they didn't think so. In retrospect perhaps they think differently, but they are also critical of Sue Girard, director of the department of health services, saying she wasn't clear enough in telling them how serious, how grave the situation was at the veterans home.


Dennis Welch:
Well, certainly though, when you look at, review some of the email there they certainly thought it was pretty serious. They took some pretty serious steps. I mean, Janine la cure said, listen, we need information on this ASAP. We need to know what's going on here. There was the issue of the department of health services saying, what's going on here is bad enough that we don't want to leave yet. We need to make sure that these problems are taken care of. So was this an issue that should have been brought to the governor in that's obviously a decision that her staff had to have made.

Steve Goldstein:
Matt, the resignation of the director of the department of veterans services, was that sort of obvious that was going to occur? Was he either going to resign or be forced to resign? When all of this broke about the veterans home?

Matthew Benson:
When you kind of saw the, when you saw what was the fallout, you had -- someone is going down for this. And you could figure, well, Patrick Chorpenning is the logical guy. There could be more heads to roll.

Steve Goldstein:
You mentioned Sue Girard. I am curious about that as well.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
That will be interesting to see. There is, this has all come up in the last week. And in that time, the legislature that is put together a bipartisan panel that will have its first meeting Wednesday, and you have to figure they will be very interested, I would assume, to talk to Ms. Girard.

Dennis Welch:
I'm kind of curious what would Sue Girard be punished for, if anything? You know, if these emails show that she did what she was supposed to do, she contacted the governor's office and let them know what was going on.

Matthew Benson:
But the emails also show, it's interesting, the emails back up the stories that both sides are telling. The emails clearly show that the governor's office was aware of the specific issues of patient neglect at the hospital. They also show as the governor's office has said that Sue Girard told them, hey, this is a routine inspection, we don't expect this to blow up into a big media storm like it has. And so you can really see how both sides read it that way.

Dennis Welch:
And again, routine, routine to stay in there all weekend and you know, kind of keep your people there to make sure the problems are taken care of. I don't know how routine that is.

Mary Go Pitzl:
You do have to wonder and I think it's a point you raised earlier in the green room that this was before all the Walter reed business broke in Washington, D.C., which really heightened public awareness about how vets are treated. Now obviously, people who are burning their clothing and having urine, having to stay in urine-soaked beds should be cause enough for concern. But certainly this has taken on more urgency since Walter Reed.

Steve Goldstein:
Let's stay with you about the controversy of the law firm the governor has involved in this.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Yes, this brings another wrinkle into the story which I think will play out longer than legislative session will. The law firm of Coppersmith-Gordon Shermer was first hired on the governor's recommendation to represent the veteran home. That home has to answer; they have a lot of stuff to answer to regulators right now. State regulator as well as two levels of federal regulators. There seemed to be some confusion that the firm was also helping the governor investigate what was going on at the home. Now, frankly, I haven't found evidence that they are working both ends of the deal. But there's been suggestions and some lawmakers believe that they were both investigating on behalf of the people of Arizona, if you would, as well as being in a defensive posture for the home. But the records appears at this point to show only the ladder, that they are there to defend the veterans home and, in fact, they have already come up with the corrective plan of action, they have made some suggestions and are even disputing some of the one or two at least of the findings of this department of health services inspection.

Dennis Welch:
But what's caught eye of a lot of republican lawmakers, as the political connections of this law firm, I mean, you have people like Sam Coppersmith, a former democratic congressman and former head of the democratic party in Arizona, Andy Gordon, Napolitano's campaign lawyer, campaign attorney, you have, you know, other people in the firm --

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Yeah, importantly, Julie Nelson is in the law firm. Her husband is the governor's chief counsel; and Karen Owens, her husband is the appointee to head the department of environmental quality. They are democrats. They are all connected. They've been friends and colleagues for years and the political connections have really chafed republican lawmakers. And I suspect we will see some of that being discussed as well by this legislature.

Dennis Welch:
But I mean this law firm, to be fair, this law firm is very qualified to do this work. They have done lots of different work in areas of health care and, in fact, have an ongoing contract with the state attorney general to do such work as an outside firm. Should the state need it.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Correct. They are not tax attorneys. They are specialists in health care.

Steve Goldstein:
Dennis, what can you tell us about the county attorney, Andrew Thomas?

Dennis Welch:
He's really laid the groundwork for a potential criminal investigation into this and to neglect and abuse of he will elderly. This is a case where, you know, kind of, pile on, I guess. I got to get my name attached to this story, too. Makes it look like I'm doing something. But this certainly takes it into a new level when you talk about criminal charges.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
You wonder when the city of phoenix will get involved in this because we have federal, state, and now county investigations going on.

Steve Goldstein:
You wonder how long it will take to find a replacement for Pat Chorpenning?

Matthew Benson:
So we don't know how long it's going to be before they find a replacement. I would imagine it could be a little while. Wait to see some of the dust settle on the investigation and the response and some of that stuff.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
And the governor did name a pretty high-powered search committee to do a national search for that replacement. He headed the whole department of veterans affairs under which or veteran services under which the home is located. So they will look nationwide and should be interesting to see what they come up with.

Dennis Welch:
This being the county attorney, the legislature has put together a little committee of their own. Kind of a bipartisan thing or whatever to go in there and investigate and look at the conditions of the home and try to figure out what went wrong and what, you know --

Steve Goldstein:
There was a little negative reaction to Pat Chorpenning, whether he was forced out. Dennis any comment on that.

Dennis Welch:
Sometimes the buck stops somewhere. You know, if you look at who was in charge of that facility, I mean, you know, it was his responsibility. And, in fact, it was his largest responsibility. If you look at that budget of his agency, it's an $18 million budget, $12 million of that is dedicated to that facility. I mean, that was his top priority while he was there. And he allowed it to get to this point.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
One thing we haven't mentioned is that there were some instances of nepotism that probably did not help his case. Chorpenning has lots of support in the veteran community. One of our workers called me to see if I knew anybody that didn't like him. I'm not really in those circles but he was having a hard time finding people who were critical of Chorpenning. You got to figure that some of the nepotism charges probably did not help his case.

Matthew Benson:
At this point -- the story is going to be seen through a political lens at this point. The republicans and many of the folks, they are critical of the governor. They want her to take the fall for this, not Patrick Chorpenning. Ultimately the buck stops with the governor. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

Steve Goldstein:
We will move in a different direction and talk about illegal immigration now, an issue that continues to dominate this year's session of the legislature. A group has launched twin petition drives to create tougher immigration laws in Arizona. Mary Jo can you tell us more about this group?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
This was a pretty robust kickoff Tuesday on the lawn of the state capitol state representative Russell Pearce, who has been the strongest voice for immigration reform in the legislature, and Don Goldwater, who ran for the GOP nomination for governor, are heading up these petition drives. One aims to put in place sanctions or penalties for employers who are found to have knowingly hired an illegal worker. The other petition drive would give local law enforcement the authority to check on a person's immigration status. Something which many local law enforcement agencies don't want, but many reform advocates feel is necessary. If you are going to do a traffic stop you may as well find out if the guy is illegally in this country.

Steve Goldstein:
So why did when group decides to go in this direction as a way of getting past the governor's veto?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Isn't Russell about term limited out in the legislature? Mr. Pearce has been trying for years to run some of these bills through the legislature. And he has enough trouble getting enemy through his own GOP caucus. Then there's the governor up on the ninth floor. And between those forces, either bills don't get out of the legislature or if they do get you want to governor they have been vetoed so it's really a sense of frustration. Now, it is very early. We are, what, 16 months ahead of when the petitions have to be filed. Pierce, when asked, well, hey, what if the legislature actually deals with this and the governor signs it into law? Do you need these petition drives? He said, we will wait and see so he's got a nice little, he's got a nice little insurance policy in his back pocket.

Dennis Welch:
This certainly does give him some political leverage to get that done and it's also going to get the business communities out there serious about maybe trying craft some real legislation they can actually have a hand in instead of letting Russell and this group take something that's what they would consider pretty draconian to the voters. And we have talked a lot about on this show and in the newspapers and what in the media about how immigration reform things have passed overwhelmingly by Arizona voters and every indication these two propositions get to the voters they will pass again.

Steve Goldstein:
Matt, as someone who covers the governor a lot, how does she feel about this?

Matthew Benson:
She hasn't commented about Russell Pearce's matter. For that matter she hasn't commented on the sanctions bill in the legislature. She typically doesn't comment on these things until they reach her desk so we don't know. In past years we have seen her veto those sort of measures. But this year it's really up in the air.

Dennis Welch:
It's getting pretty hard for her to veto this one because she's trapped in her own. Last year she said there were no teeth to the employer sanctions and this time it carries a lot of teeth. How can she get out of this?

Matthew Benson:
What we have seen so far democrats in large part voted for that bill. So at this point, it's a bipartisan effort and that will be a lot tougher for her to turn down.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
There's also the argument that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know, and let's get, see what the bill is when it goes up to the ninth floor, sign it. It might take the steam out of at least the employer sanctions petition drive. But I wouldn't count on that either.

Steve Goldstein:
Speaking with her on the radio we have often heard her say she wants lawmakers to do their job and pass these laws. Now, is she a hypocrite on this case? These are not bills she wants on her desk.

Dennis Welch:
I don't know being a hypocrite; I don't know that's the case. But, you know, certainly, I think it would be a lot easier and it will make the process a little easier if she was signaling more about what she was thinking and what she would do with these types of legislation as they work their way through the process.

Steve Goldstein:
Mary Jo, Congressman Jeff Flake has introduced more federal legislation. Now we are going to have another march on May 1. Is this going to be any different in the route will be the coliseum to the capitol again? What sort of impact could it have this time around?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
That's really hard to say because often these marches are somewhat, even though they go to the capitol, I think last year didn't they vacate the capitol when the march came down? So in terms of actually having the decision-makers on scene to witness this and be influenced, they're not there. So the message doesn't quite get through the same way as if you come into somebody's office. And my sense is that these mars are sort of losing their punch.

Dennis Welch:
And that, too. A lot of lawmakers down there will look at these folks and say, they don't vote. Why should -- you know, these, they look at them as a lot of illegal who shouldn't be here anyway.

Matthew Benson:
In many cases we have been talking about this issue for so long, folks are entrenched in their positions. So if you are Russell Pearce and you want to get tough on the border, then, you are going to see that march as supporting your viewpoint and if you are someone else, if you are Steve, and you want immigration reform more, you are going to see these marchers in terms of supporting your viewpoint.

Dennis Welch:
As far as impact, too, like Mary Jo said, as far as losing punch, what was so amazing last year how out of the nowhere these things happened and we had a couple marches and that really nobody was prepared for the size of that. And this year it's not going to surprise anybody.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
The wild card might be like the flake Gutierrez that was introduced in congress, whether that gets -- if the feds take action that restless types here in Arizona deem sufficient. Will that blunt this? I would say with these petition drives the genie is out of the bottle. Voters will get to vote on both those issues in November of 2008.

Dennis Welch:
Can the governor do anything tough enough to live up to Russell Pearce's standards? I don't know.

Steve Goldstein:
As people who are down at the capitol all the time as someone who is on the outside as I am, it does seem like Russell Pearce has a little bit of a lower profile this session. Is that because he's not an election year or is that just my imagination?

Dennis Welch:
I think initially, he had a little bit of a lower profile maybe. I can't -- I don't necessarily think that he does. But I think initially it was like that, but yeah, it's not an election year so you are not seeing all the political rhetoric you saw last year.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Things are clicking along for him. As matt pointed out, 14 democrats I think voted for the employer sanctions bill. He is not getting as much push back as he has in past years.

Matthew Benson:
And he has just as many bills this year as he has in the past. I think he's a little less egregious than he has been in the past and I think that's partially because he was stung last year by some of the criticism coming off the his wetback comment and mail where he was forwarding some of the white supremacist stuff he said he didn't know about and he took a lot of heat for that. And I really think he kind of took a step back.

Steve Goldstein:
Briefly, Dennis, let's close out the subject.

Dennis Welch:
Certainly. He's taken a step back. I think he probably got some good advice by somebody saying, you are your own worst enemy at this point. Everything you say, you have got all this negative press, you have really kind of negated any effectiveness you have so, yeah, take a step back will, work behind the scenes. You have a lot of juice in the legislature. You will be able to get some stuff done. Just be quiet.

Steve Goldstein:
Representative Trish Groe, Lake Havasu City, has taken a leave of absence after being arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. When did it happen?

Matthew Benson:
She was arrested late Thursday night of last week driving if phoenix back to her home outside Lake Havasu City. And she was arrested for D.U.I. and she was driving with a cancelled driver's license. So obviously that made news and then even more so in the days to follow when it came out that she, in fact, had a past D.U.I. from November 1999, in California. So at this point she has taken a step out of the legislature, taken a leave of absence and she is in rehab.

Steve Goldstein:
What sort of impact could this have on legislative duties?

Matthew Benson:
It's hard to know. Obviously, for the next 30 days the republicans are one vote fewer in their caucus. If she comes back after 30 days she should be here for the key votes in the budget and then all that goes with that at the end of the session. If more information comes to light or anything else happens and she has to step down from the legislature, obviously, that's a different situation.

Dennis Welch:
If there any good news out of this it would be for the democrats who are now like two D.U.I.'s short of taking the majority of the house.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Well, and actually, interesting, there's a bill that's moving its way throughout legislature to deal with extreme D.U.I. and how having this, have that charge happen to one of their own might affect how lawmakers view this. Because there was a lot of tension between democrats who said that's too tough, we really need to emphasize treatment first and republicans say no, wait a minute, treatment but punishment you know. You broke the law.

Dennis Welch:
Would she be conflicted out to vote on that bill now?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Well, I don't think so. Because she would be part of a larger class. It's really not narrowly tailored just to her, of people charged with D.U.I.

Steve Goldstein:
Base on the timing of when this happened how different is this, certainly situation is different but when Jonathan Payton was serving in Iraq that was the beginning of the session. Did that have less of an impact to have one less Republican?

Matthew Benson:
Well certainly at beginning of the session, you know, you have got all the time in the world. They are going to be here for 100, 120 days anyway. So this next 30 days is a pretty key 30 days. So the question is, if she is back, if she is back at the legislature by the beginning of May or end of April, I don't think it's going to hurt the republicans that much. It's only one vote. But if she's gone longer, it could certainly be an issue especially when it comes to some of these key budget bills.

Dennis Welch:
Certainly the budget bills and to that point, the next 30 days are going to be really important. We have only sent one bill to the governor so far. Right now, you are starting to see a lot of those bills getting ready to get up to the ninth floor for their signature and some of these may come down to a slim margin. I mean, one vote could it make a difference? I don't know.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Just for context I mean, Groe is a pretty reliable conservative vote so when it comes to budget matters, for those who are pushing for a lot of restraint on the state budget, that vote is really important.

Steve Goldstein:
The budget was a nasty fight last session. And part of that I guess we can presume again was the governor was running for reelection. Have you noticed, Dennis, I will start with you. Have you noticed a little bit of a difference in how negotiations could, in fact, look ahead? Could this be a kinder, gentler session?

Dennis Welch:
Certainly, in the senate at least we know that they are making more of an effort to work with democrats over there to try to craft a budget and seems to be that it's going along smoother. By all indications it's ahead of where we were last year at this point. You know, and we could see a budget, you know, within the next few weeks, at least a proposal out there.

Mary Jo Pitzl:
They haven't gotten down to the real tough stuff though. I was talking to Senator John Huppenthal who is the senate majority whip and he was saying they have gone through 600 plus lines of the budget. They have got 100, a few low 100 lines left and those are the tough ones. Those will be the how to pay for schools, by the way, the republicans say only with cash. No bonding. Roads, kids care, et cetera. And also I think that I do think it will be well , I don't know if kinder and gentler is a good term but it won't be as contentious as last year because there's not as much money to fight over. It's a scarcity issue and there's less to scrap over you just doesn't have the big battles.

Dennis Welch:
It's also a fight over how to finance these things. Whether you pay as you go or you, you know, you bond out and you lease purchase something.

Steve Goldstein:
Matt, has the governor given any indication whether she feels that the budget talks could be smoother this time around or no?

Matthew Benson:
Well she's talking only in the vaguest of terms about the budget. And certainly a few weeks ago we saw her sit down with the house republican caucus and try to hammer out some, to further explain to them some of her viewpoints on these issues. None of which were really a secret anyway. So it will be interesting but you know I don't think anybody wants to be in session until June 22 again like last year.

Steve Goldstein:
Mary Jo, you mentioned school building funding being something that could be contentious. Any other issue comes to mind? Transportation? Is that something that could be a lot of fighting?

Mary Jo Pitzl:
Yeah, how to pay for roads. There's a debate that the legislature apparently already ruled out tapping into the rainy day fund. So that leaves pretty much take it out of the general fund, hike taxes which I don't think you your going to see happen this year. But I expect that to be a state issue next year. Or bond and then the debate about bonding is, do you extend that borrowing period to 30 years from 20? The governor is advocating that. She has some allies including on the republican side. But they haven't gotten down to that yet.

Steve Goldstein:
Dennis Welch of the East Valley Tribune, Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic, Matt Benson of the Arizona Republic, thanks very much to all of you.

Larry Lemmons:
Senator John Kyl talks about the challenges facing the country in terms of the war on terror. Also the U.S. attorney controversy is putting heat on the administration and former D.N.C chairman Terry McAuliffe talks about his book and his direction of the presidential campaign for Senator Hillary Clinton Monday night at 7 on Channel 8's Horizon.

Steve Goldstein:
Coming up next on "Now", the struggle to rebuild Iraq. I'm Steve Goldstein. Thanks very much for watching. Have a great weekend.

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