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Senate Confirms VA Chief

Democrats override allegations that the governor chose him to return a political favor.

March 25, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The Senate overrode Republican charges of a "political payoff" Monday and confirmed as the new state secretary of Veterans Affairs a retired GOP lawmaker who cast the deciding Senate vote last summer to pass Gov. Gray Davis' state budget.

Senior GOP Sen. Ross Johnson (Irvine) objected to giving former Sen. Maurice K. Johannessen of Redding responsibility for assisting military men and women, saying Johannessen is not trustworthy.

That, Johnson said, is because Johannessen was known to argue one way in private with GOP colleagues and to do the opposite when he had to make a decision in the full Senate.

Last summer, Davis and the Senate's 26 Democrats needed at least one GOP vote to pass the Senate version of the state budget. As he had done the year before, Johannessen broke ranks and provided the go-ahead 27th vote, a move that so angered Republicans that they shut him out of their private strategy sessions; some refused to speak to him.

Johnson said it was "common knowledge" in the Capitol last year that Johannessen would give Senate Democrats the one vote they needed to approve Davis' budget and "in exchange for that vote he would receive this specific appointment from the governor."

Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale), a retired Air Force test pilot and combat aviator, said that Johannessen's budget cross-over vote demonstrated that he lacked the "character sufficient to support our veterans."

But Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) said he knew of no such deal and defended Johannessen as an appointee capable of reforming a "very troubled department." He noted that several leading veterans organizations supported Johannessen's confirmation.

Johannessen, the fourth VA secretary nominated by Davis in the last five years, was confirmed to the $131,412-a-year post on a 25-10 vote. Only one Republican, Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), joined Democrats in voting for Johannessen. Other Republicans voted no or abstained.

Davis did not respond Monday to Johnson's charge of a political payoff, but said he was grateful that the Senate had given his nominee a "vote of confidence." Davis' spokesman Steve Maviglio dismissed the charge as "poppycock."

Johannessen, 68, a native of Norway who served in the U.S. Army after jumping ship in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, retired from the Senate in November. In December, Davis appointed him to the veterans post. The governor insisted the two had never discussed the appointment until after the November election.

The VA provides home loans, skilled care at nursing homes and other services for veterans.

The debate over Johannessen's appointment in part was fueled by anger over other recent hires, including another one in which Republicans objected to what they saw as payback for an important budget vote last year.

In December, Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson, a Los Angeles Democrat, hired Mike Briggs as a consultant on agricultural and horse racing issues at $99,000 a year, the same salary he had earned as an Assemblyman. When he represented Fresno in the Assembly, Briggs was one of four Republicans there who joined Democrats in voting to pass Davis' budgets in 2001 and 2002.

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