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California and the West

Davis Stands Behind Veterans Appointee

Capitol: Despite probe into death at Barstow home, governor still urges Senate to confirm official.

May 12, 2000|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis, who personally ordered a surprise investigation into the death of a World War II soldier at the Barstow veterans home, insisted Thursday that he wants Tomas Alvarado confirmed as state chief of veterans affairs.

"We stand behind him," Davis said as questions swirled over how strongly the governor backs confirmation by the state Senate of Alvarado as Cabinet-level secretary of veterans affairs.

Alvarado was the deputy director of veterans affairs in the Wilson administration, and last year Davis appointed him to the top post.

But Alvarado has recently found himself embroiled in controversy and fighting to keep his job.

On Monday, the governor ordered an investigation into the death of World War II Army drill sergeant Paul Stevens, a two-year resident of the Barstow nursing home, which is run by Alvarado's agency.

In a brief interview Thursday, Davis raised the possibility of criminal charges being filed in connection with the Feb. 11 death.

The cause of death for Stevens, who suffered from multiple ailments, including heart disease, is in dispute.

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs said Stevens, 76, died of a heart attack while eating lunch in his room. But the San Bernardino County coroner reported that he choked to death on broccoli.

"It is unclear at this point the exact cause of the death and the extent to which people did or did not . . . turn over appropriate information," Davis said.

The governor added that in ordering agents from the state inspector general's office to join health investigators for a full-scale probe of the 180-bed home, he warned state health director Diana Bonta that the case may become a criminal matter.

"I told Dr. Bonta [that] if she thought it appropriate, at some point in time, [she could] turn it over to the district attorney or the attorney general, depending on what the facts reveal," Davis said.

The home narrowly kept its license two months ago after a long state investigation into patient care and other issues.

Alvarado's appointment to the $126,348-a-year post as secretary of veterans affairs has stalled in the Senate Rules Committee since Monday amid anonymous allegations that he sexually harassed women employees and retaliated against workers who did not meet his standards. He has denied both allegations.

The Davis administration announced the surprise investigation into Stevens' death just as Alvarado was about to start testifying at his confirmation hearing of the Rules Committee.

Davis, who counts armed forces veterans among his strongest supporters, appointed Alvarado, a twice-wounded Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, to be secretary of veterans affairs last May.

Unless he is confirmed by the Senate by Wednesday, he must leave the post. The Rules Committee is expected to vote on the confirmation at a second hearing Monday.

However, both Democratic and Republican leaders said it was unclear whether Alvarado would be approved by the committee, which is controlled by Davis' fellow Democrats, including Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton, who subjected Alvarado to heavy questioning earlier in the week.

Some senators indicated the outcome might depend on how much Davis wants Alvarado in the job and on how hard the governor is willing to fight for him.

On Thursday, Davis characterized Alvarado as a "distinguished veteran" who "worked hard to recertify Barstow and we stand behind him."

"I called him and told him I'm supporting his confirmation," Davis said.

But the governor conceded that he had not alerted Alvarado that he was planning the investigation into the circumstances of Stevens' death.

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