A Call to Arms

Attorney goes to war over state agency's shoddy treatment of veterans

The longtime attorney for the Arizona Veterans Service Commission is calling it quits, saying serious mismanagement and shoddy leadership have destroyed the agency's credibility and its ability to serve veterans.

Harold Merkow is attaching a scathing letter of resignation to court papers involving dozens of veterans to support his claims that AVSC's operation is dangerously slipshod.

AVSC's primary mission is to provide incapacitated vets and their families with a guardian or a conservator--the legal equivalent of a parent. It serves about 450 wards statewide, most of whom have modest estates. In return, wards pay AVSC 5 percent of their annual incomes, if they have any. The agency's fiduciary unit processes about $600,000 monthly in cash receipts and disbursements.

In a July 14 letter to AVSC director Norman Gallion, Merkow said he won't have anything to do with the agency anymore.

"Since 1996," the Phoenix barrister wrote, "I have witnessed a remarkable decline in the quality of services provided by the [AVSC] Fiduciary Division. . . . It is no longer possible to defend AVSC from its own folly."

Merkow told Gallion, "You acknowledged [on March 6] that the Fiduciary Division was riddled with incompetence. . . . Instead of seeing any improvement since March, the Fiduciary Unit is deteriorating at a more rapid pace, which is demonstrated by further marked degradation in service to veterans. . . ."

Continued Merkow, "I have counseled with you on many, many occasions about the damage being caused by AVSC, without avail. Due to AVSC's lack of services, AVSC's shoddy accounting and AVSC's universal unwillingness to abide by court orders, the credibility of the Arizona Veterans Service Commission has fallen to zero. . . .

"It is evident that, although AVSC may be able to initially attract highly skilled employees, those employees rapidly leave AVSC's employment because of your character-less leadership. . . . Disabled veterans' dignity is debased when their supposed protector fails to perform its duties and responsibilities and provides 'services' that are far below the standard of care for fiduciaries."

Merkow is right about AVSC's turnover rate, which was a staggering 61 percent in fiscal year 1997-'98, compared with 45 percent the previous year. That's more than any other Arizona agency, according to records provided by the state. Of state agencies with more than 100 but fewer than 1,000 employees, the Department of Education ranked second in turnover last fiscal year--but with only a 23 percent rate.

Many at Maricopa County's Probate Court have taken keen note of the scathing tone of Merkow's letter. Merkow--also an administrative law judge--is well-regarded around the Maricopa County courthouse, and Probate Court judges have considered his representation of AVSC since 1976 a plus.

His letter followed a state auditor general's report issued last February, which said, in part, "AVSC has not met its fiduciary duties or its statutory responsibilities."

In an April New Times story ("Competence Goes AWOL," April 30), Mike Bielecki--an executive assistant to Governor Jane Hull--said his office was actively overseeing AVSC's woes and was starting to see improvement.

Now, Bielecki says he and Hull plan to take a harder look at AVSC's recent track record.

"The governor is very concerned about the status of the quality of services over at the commission," Bielecki told New Times on Monday. "We're going to be doing another review of that status--this week--and the accounts and the effectiveness of the agency's ability to serve those clients. If the state is involved, then, very seriously, the governor wants it to work effectively."

Hull, though, does not have the power to hire or fire the AVSC director, despite the presence of the governor's name atop the agency's letterhead. By law, Gallion reports directly to his agency's seven-person commission, whose members represent various military organizations. AVSC board chairman Carroll Fyffe--a past president of the Military Order of the Purple Heart--says the board continues to support Gallion.

But presiding probate/mental-health judge Donald Daughton says he and court commissioners who routinely scan AVSC filings aren't seeing the improvements promised by Gallion.

To the contrary, Daughton says, "They keep promising, but they don't keep delivering. AVSC simply isn't performing adequately on behalf of their wards--and their excuses are insufficient. That agency doesn't seem to understand what its fiduciary responsibilities and duties are under the law."

Harold Merkow told New Times last week that he stands by his July letter, which ended:

". . . you are either incapable of, or unwilling to make the changes necessary to restore AVSC's reputation, and you . . . will continue to be content to wallow in the deplorable state of affairs you have allowed to develop."

Contact Paul Rubin at 229-8433 or his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

 
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