Under Fire

Arizona Veterans Service Commission executive director Norman Gallion retired last week--hours after a New Times story reported on continuing problems in the troubled state agency.

AVSC board chairman Carroll Fyffe says Gallion announced his surprise retirement--which is effective November 1--in a faxed letter sent to Fyffe's home in Sierra Vista.

"It may be true that it happened the same day," Fyffe says, "but we did not force Norm to retire. In fact, the day before [Tuesday, October 13], we at the commission gave Norm a 100 percent vote of confidence at our meeting.

"Yes, it was a surprise. And, yes, the agency has had serious problems in the fiduciary unit. But we still felt Norm was doing a good job."

However, many of those familiar with AVSC's track record in recent years take exception to Fyffe's positive analysis. Last week's story described how the agency's longtime attorney has been attaching his own letter of resignation to court papers filed in veterans' cases. In the letter, Phoenix attorney Harold Merkow accuses Gallion of serious mismanagement and shoddy leadership.

"The credibility of the Arizona Veterans Service Commission has fallen to zero," it said in part. "Although AVSC may be able to initially attract highly skilled employees, those employees rapidly leave AVSC's employment because of your character-less leadership. . . ."

Mike Bielecki, an executive assistant to Governor Jane Hull, says the governor has become concerned about AVSC's operation, but doesn't have the power to hire or fire its executive director. That decision, by law, is up to the commission's board.

Bielecki won't say whether Hull exerted pressure on Gallion to announce his sudden retirement.

"As I told you last week," he says, "the governor will not tolerate agencies that have quality-of-services issues such as have become obvious at AVSC. It's apparent that we may not have gotten all the information about the way things have been going over there."

But Merkow says he sent a copy of his scathing letter, dated July 14, to Hull. Bielecki says he doesn't recall having seen it.

"I wrote that letter," Merkow says, "because AVSC is failing miserably in its job to take care of veterans who can't take care of themselves. The silence of everyone in this whole affair has been mystifying to me--the VA [federal Veterans Administration], the politicians, the legislature, the attorney general, the governor."

Earlier this year ("Competence Goes AWOL," April 30), New Times revealed how AVSC's slipshod financial accountings and haphazard case management had forced the presiding judge of Maricopa County's Probate/Mental Health Department to order a still-binding moratorium on appointing AVSC in new conservatorship cases.

Established by the Arizona State Legislature in 1951, AVSC is supposed to provide veterans and their families with a guardian and/or conservator when needed--the legal equivalent of a parent. The agency serves about 450 wards statewide, who pay AVSC 5 percent of their annual incomes from their estates--most of which are modest. Most of the wards are incapacitated.

Former AVSC fiduciary chief Barbara Valdez is happy that Gallion finally is leaving the agency.

"The people in charge of overseeing AVSC did a disservice to veterans by not forcing him out a long time ago," says Valdez, a Phoenix attorney. "It's been incredible to me that things have been allowed to go on as they have."

AVSC's Carroll Fyffe says the commissioners will install a temporary executive director until a suitable candidate emerges from a nationwide search.

"I feel that Norm may have sort of had it," Fyffe says. "He's been facing pressures on a lot of fronts, and he's recovering from an illness [an emergency appendectomy last summer].

"I'd like to say that Norm Gallion lives, breathes, sleeps and eats veterans' services in this state like no one else. It is the right time, though, for someone else to do that as our executive director."

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: [email protected]