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Confirmation of State Veterans Chief Delayed

Cabinet: Senate leader says more time is required to review sexual harassment and other allegations, which Tomas Alvarado denies. The appointment appears to be in jeopardy.

May 09, 2000|CARL INGRAM and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Amid allegations that Veterans Affairs Secretary Tomas Alvarado sexually harassed women and retaliated against other workers, the state Senate Rules Committee postponed a vote on his confirmation Monday, raising the possibility that he will fail to win approval.

As Alvarado was appearing before the committee, the state Department of Health Services announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into a death at the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs-operated home for aging and disabled veterans at Barstow.

Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco), chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, said members need more time to examine the harassment charges, which Alvarado denied.

Burton did not indicate when the committee will meet again. But Alvarado, a member of Gov. Gray Davis' Cabinet who was appointed a year ago, must be confirmed by the full Senate by May 17 or leave the post.

Later, Burton said the delayed disclosure of the veteran's death at the Barstow home and the start of an investigation "doesn't tip the scales in [Alvarado's] favor."

Burton said he learned after the Rules Committee hearing that the veteran choked to death on broccoli Feb. 11, and that such a death should have been quickly reported to the state health department.

An assistant to Alvarado, Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Gerald Rucker, said officials believed the victim died of a heart attack and that such deaths typically do not have to be reported to the state health department.

The Department of Health Services investigation came in response to an anonymous phone call, received during the weekend, reporting that there was a suspicious death at the Barstow home earlier this year.

State Health Director Diana Bonta would not elaborate.

Despite the announcement of the new investigation, Davis administration officials defended the governor's nominee to head the $350-million-a-year Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Secretary Alvarado is a decorated veteran and should be confirmed," Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante said Monday. "There is no reason for us to believe that he should not be confirmed."

The 400-bed Barstow facility, one of two state-run homes for aging and disabled veterans, opened in 1996. State health inspectors repeatedly have criticized the operation for poor care of the roughly 180 people who are housed at the facility's nursing home.

The Barstow home almost lost certification earlier this year--and with it a federal subsidy, prompting Davis to direct that Alvarado live at the home until conditions improved. In March, after Alvarado hired a nursing home consultant for $850,000, the Department of Health Services agreed to give the home passing marks.

"What's important here is that the Department of Health Services was made aware of something [the death] and immediately jumped into action," Bustamante said, adding that Davis dispatched the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs to assist in the investigation.

Alvarado, who like the governor is a veteran of the Vietnam War, drew praise from some veterans' organizations for his efforts to reform the long-troubled department, including major steps at the Barstow Veterans Home.

But Alvarado, a former Wilson administration official who recruited veterans to support Davis' campaign for governor in 1998, also encountered a barrage of criticism, including charges by unnamed victims that he sexually harassed women at the department.

Under intense questioning by Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood), Alvarado testified, "No, ma'am, I've never been accused of sexual harassment." He said three employees have made sexual harassment complaints in the past 15 years, and made the allegations only after they had been fired.

Hughes and other members did not disclose details of the alleged harassment or identify the accusers. They indicated that the claims became known to them in letters sent to the committee but not made public.

Other witnesses asserted that Alvarado was rude and abusive in his dealing with employees of the department. Testimony indicated that several were sent home on paid leave for various workplace violations beyond the 15 days they said the law allows. They said they were told their cases would be investigated while they were on forced leave, but never were.

One employee, Denise Hall, a former spokeswoman for the Barstow facility, said she was unfairly accused of "hurting the reputation" of the home and sent home. When she returned, she said, she was sent to an isolated office and relieved of many of her duties.

She said she feared retaliation for testifying against Alvarado. But Burton, staring at Alvarado, warned that if any retaliation occurred, "they'll find out what retaliation really is."

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