Arizona governor’s appointments stir controversy

February 8, 1987

By LARRY LOPEZ
Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Gov. Evan Mecham, who vowed to shake up the state’s bureaucracy, is shaking up legislators as well with some of his appointments, including an education lobbyist who says teachers shouldn’t argue with students who think the world is flat.

The maverick Republican began his administration last month amid controversy by canceling a holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As expected, he is methodically replacing many of the 500 appointed officials who served in the administration of long-time Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Some of his choices, however, have alarmed even the Republican-controlled state Senate, which has decided to hire a private company to investigate some of the 300 nominees who serve subject to Senate consent.

Among some of Mecham’s more controversial appointments, none of whom yet has been approved by the Senate:

— Liquor superintendent nominee Alberto Rodriguez, who is under investigation by the state attorney general’s office for his role in the 1953 fatal shooting of a burglary suspect when he was a rookie policeman in Douglas.

— Bill Heuisler, Mecham’s choice for chief investigator, who had not reported some past convictions when applying for a private investigator’s license. He withdrew several days after telling a reporter “you’re lucky I don’t break a chair over your head.”

— A candidate to head the state’s self-insurance program, Joseph Haldiman III, who withdrew after disclosure that his insurance license had been revoked and that he also was under investigation by the state attorney general.

One Mecham appointee whose position is not subject to Senate confirmation is former state Rep. Jim Cooper, whom Mecham named as an education adviser.

Cooper told a state House committee last week that if a student “wants to say the world is flat, the teacher doesn’t have the right to try to prove otherwise. The schools don’t have any business telling people what to believe.”

Asked how schools could maintain academic standards under his system, the former legislator replied, “I don’t worry about that part of it.”

Mecham, a multimillionaire auto dealer who served one term in the state Senate, did not even enter the race for governor until last July and was taken seriously by virtually no one until he beat the GOP heir-apparent in a primary upset.

His November victory was sealed when a second Democrat entered the race as an independent, and Mecham won the office with 40 percent of the vote.

Mecham, a conservative who campaigned against his own party’s establishment as much as against the Democrats, has defended his choices for appointive office.

“We’ve done a good job of background checking a lot of people,” the governor said in a recent interview. “You check and see how many people we’ve appointed to office, and we’ve had very few (mistakes). … I don’t think we’ve batted too bad at this point and I think we have been pretty careful.”

Some Mecham appointments have won widespread praise. The appointment of Ted Williams, a black, to head the state Health Department helped mute criticism of Mecham over Martin Luther King day.

His predecessor, Babbitt, also picked his share of lemons, including a criminal-justice planner and a dairy commissioner who later were convicted of theft-related charges.

But Republicans could blame those appointments on Democrat Babbitt, and “we don’t have that excuse any more,” says Majority Leader Robert Usdane of Scottsdale.

Usdane and other Republican Senate leaders say they hope to rewrite the law on confirmations so they can concentrate on key policy-making posts while dropping lesser ones.

Senate confirmation now is required for more than 300 posts, including such agencies as the Oil and Gas Commission, which has little to do in a state with virtually no oil or gas wells.

The senators also plan to hire a private firm to conduct thorough background checks on key nominees, according to President Carl Kunasek.

Both moves are in response to long-standing concerns, not just the Mecham administration, Usdane said. “For a long time, we’ve been saying the advise- and-consent process power has not been well done here.”