Psyched Out: Governor Jan Brewers Liaison Hijacks the Democratic Process
If you are bitter about something that happened in your divorce, don't take it out on the rest of us.
If you hated your court-appointed psychologist, that doesn't give you the right to screw with every court-appointed psychologist in the state of Arizona.
And even if you work for the governor — make that, especially if you work for the governor — how about at least pretending to respect the legislative process?
Last month, I heard some disturbing things about the actions of Jeri Auther, who is the governor's liaison to boards and regulatory commissions. And now that I've looked into it, I'm truly concerned.
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The record suggests that Auther used her position to pressure a state regulatory board — to the point that its members feared for the board's existence unless they gave into her demands.
The accusations come from the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners, which regulates psychologists here. For the record, no one directly involved was willing to speak to me about this issue. Not the board's executive director, not its lobbyist, and not Auther.
But board minutes and audiotape of two recent meetings make it clear that Auther seriously overstepped in her dealings with the agency.
Even worse, after talking to Governor Jan Brewer's spokesman, it appears that Auther attempted to strong-arm the psychologists' board not because the governor wanted action, but because Auther had a personal agenda.
That agenda, I suspect, had to do with her divorce.
As in many divorces, Auther and her ex disagreed about who should have custody of their three children. But unlike most divorces, which generate months of bitterness only to wrap up eventually with everybody reasonably intact, this was a divorce for the record books. It literally encompasses 15 files at the Maricopa County Superior Court Clerk's Office — a stack of documents well over two feet high.
The documents show that the divorce took nearly five years, 14 judges, and at least two trips to the appellate court. Jeri Auther personally chewed through four lawyers, two of whom ultimately withdrew from the case, citing "fundamental disagreements" with her as a client. Auther, who is a lawyer, ran out of money and was forced to represent herself for a time — and ended up in bankruptcy court, to boot.
The file is a sad testament to two people who simply can't work anything out, even with the full resources of the court to help them do it. It makes for a depressing read.
Where it's relevant to our story is this: The court appointed a therapist to evaluate the Authers' children, too. And Jeri Auther did not like what the therapist said.
Throughout the divorce, Auther had complained of physical and emotional abuse. (During a custody dispute, she called the cops on her ex, who was charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault. He ultimately entered a "no contest" plea.)
Auther's allegations became a major sticking point with the court-appointed therapist. Auther complained that the shrink didn't take her claims seriously, she didn't interview the children's pediatrician, she didn't spend enough time talking to Auther's personal psychologist. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Ultimately, the therapist concluded that Jeri Auther, and not just her husband, bore some responsibility for the couple's difficulties.
"This evaluator feels that the parents must learn to work cooperatively to co-parent their three children," the counselor wrote, "and not use the legal system as a way to attempt to control or manipulate one another."
Interestingly, Auther basically got what she wanted: sole legal custody. But she found the therapist's report so outrageous, she would testify about it four years later, in 2004, to an Arizona Supreme Court committee examining custody cases.
"The evaluator did not address two domestic violence convictions, and never addressed substance abuse and child abuse . . .," the minutes quote Auther as saying. "Her biggest complaint was the lack of consistency."
Even before Governor Janet Napolitano moved to D.C. and Jan Brewer ascended to the governorship, the Arizona Board of Psychologist Examiners had been working with the Legislature to get a bill passed that would clean up the rules governing psychologists.
House Bill 2206 covered a lot: training, the governance of out-of-state psychologists, and — most importantly — the method for handling complaints against board-certified psychologists who are appointed in family court.
Over the years, I'm told, the board has been flooded with complaints from angry parties in divorce cases. That's not surprising: These cases get highly emotional, and if one parent is happy, the other one usually isn't. A complaint to the psych board generally forces psychologists to recuse themselves — and that allows the unhappy parent to try again with another professional.
The first psychologist, of course, gets stuck spending time and money to defend his license. And that bothered the psych board. In all but the most unusual cases, the board was closing out nearly all such complaints as "unfounded." Why continue to provide an outlet for so many frivolous complaints?
House Bill 2206 offered a new plan. If a psychologist has been appointed by the court for a divorce case, any complaints go to the court first. Judges are familiar with these cases; only if they suspect misconduct would a complaint get forwarded to the board for its review.
State Representative David Bradley, a Democrat from Tucson, was a bill sponsor. It wasn't until the very end of the legislative process, he says, that he heard rumors that the Governor's Office had a concern with the new complaint system. Even then, he never heard specifics.
Ultimately, the bill sailed through both chambers without opposition. I watched videotapes of its committee hearings; it drew literally no public dissent.
Governor Brewer signed it.
The governor did issue a signing letter, which suggests the chatter that Representative Bradley heard may have had some validity. Brewer wanted to have further discussion: She was concerned, she wrote, that the process would put a strain on the courts.
Indeed, a little discussion on that point might have done some good. Had Brewer conferred with judges, she likely would have realized that the new plan would actually speed up judicial dockets. Complaints about evaluations are a common stalling tactic. It would take judges hardly any time to dismiss frivolous complaints — and forward anything remotely complicated to the psych board.
But a discussion was not to be had. Because even though the psych board worked to gain approval for the plan for years, it voted in a conference call last month to undo its efforts and seek repeal.
According to meeting minutes, the board feared that the governor's liaison, Auther, would otherwise yank its funding, leaving psychologists here unregulated.
At a board meeting in August, the board's lobbyist, Stuart Goodman, explained that he had met with Jeri Auther, along with the board's executive director, Dr. Cynthia Olvey, and deputy director, Megan Hinckley.
"Based on the discussion during the meeting, Mr. Goodman reported that it is the governor's liaison's expectation that the entire section relating to judicially appointed psychologists should be restored to its original status," the minutes report.
And Auther wasn't taking no for an answer.
During a September 4 conference call, Dr. Olvey reported that Auther had called to demand a copy of the August minutes. Auther then followed up by phone to make her demands even more clear, Olvey reported, according to an audio version of the meeting I obtained through a public-records request.
The new language needed to be repealed. There would be no negotiating.
Naturally, board members responded with horror.
"I don't think it's a good process to dictate to a board, or anyone for that matter, that there can be no discussion and no meeting of the minds," said Dr. Frederick Wechsler, according to the audiotape.
Added board member Megan Hunter-Williams, "I don't feel like I live in America. I feel like I'm being dictated to. It's wrong to be dictated to this way."
The board gave in.
Typically, regulatory agencies such as the psych board pay for themselves — they collect fees to cover their operations.
But thanks to "sweeps" from the Governor's Office that vacuumed up extra cash from regulatory boards, even the best-run agencies aren't sitting on surpluses anymore. They believe they can't say no to the Governor's Office without risking oblivion.
Board members were clearly afraid of Auther's power.
"She's the representative to the governor for the regulatory boards, and her directive is that we're to return to the original language," board member Dr. Gary Lovejoy said, according to the minutes. "This is a Solomon's decision. I think we risk having psychologists in Arizona in six, nine months, or a year not being regulated with an insolvent board. I agree with the political reality — that we do exactly what the Governor's Office directed and let the chips fall where they may."
So the board voted to work to return the law to its previous form. Not a brave act, but the board thought the greater good required it.
The crazy denouement: In reality, the governor was asking for no such thing.
I talked to the governor's spokesman, Paul Senseman. I explained that the board had voted to work to repeal the law.
That was never the governor's intention, he said.
"We are not seeking a repeal at all," he told me. "This part of the bill, about where complaints originate, this administration is comfortable with that. Or the governor would not have signed the bill."
The governor wants follow-up discussion, Senseman added. "When anyone implements these omnibus bills, there's always further discussion and hearing of these issues. We want to make absolutely sure that this is the best policy."
But a repeal? Definitely not.
Senseman suggested that it may have been a misunderstanding. Perhaps, he said, Dr. Olvey wrongly characterized her discussion with Auther.
"It sounds like conjecture on the part of that staff member," he said. "Maybe something is lost in translation."
But board minutes make it clear that Dr. Olvey wasn't the only one who heard Auther push for repeal. Another staffer, and the board's lobbyist, were both present.
More importantly, Dr. Olvey seemed to have no doubts about what she'd been instructed.
"[Auther] read the minutes and wanted to be sure that the board is clear — there is to be no negotiating on that section about court-appointed psychologists," Olvey reported at the September 4 meeting. "Her position is that the section needs to be returned to its original language."
There is to be no negotiating? Kind of hard to misinterpret that.
I read that passage aloud to Senseman. He seemed surprised.
"That is certainly not the position of the administration," he told me.
I didn't think so.
The question now is what Governor Brewer is going to do about it. Will her team persist in taking the easy way out and insist that both the board staff and the board's lobbyist somehow misunderstood Auther? Or will they admit that their employee has gone rogue — and take steps to deal with her actions?
The record is clear. The governor's response to this nonsense should be absolutely clear, too.