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Veterans Affairs Chief Is Fired by Schwarzenegger

Maurice Johannessen says Republican senators were behind the move because twice as a lawmaker he broke with the GOP and voted for Davis' budgets.

November 20, 2003|Carl Ingram | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Maurice Johannessen, who as a state senator angered fellow Republicans by twice voting for Democrat Gov. Gray Davis' budgets, said Wednesday that he had been fired by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The governor appointed Leo Tuttle, a retired Air Force colonel and former deputy secretary of the veterans department in the Pete Wilson administration, as the interim head of the agency.

Johannessen charged that his removal Monday night was a payback by influential GOP senators because he broke ranks with them on the 2001 and 2002 budgets.

"I was told that I was the No. 1 target of a couple of senators in the Republican Caucus to get rid of," Johannessen said.

He asserted that veteran Republican Sens. Ross Johnson of Irvine and William "Pete" Knight of Palmdale used their influence with the new GOP administration to secure his dismissal.

Johannessen said he knew that it was traditional for appointees of a former governor to voluntarily step down when a new governor takes office. He said he was prepared to do so, but complained that his treatment was "very distasteful and schlocky."

Vince Sollitto, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, declined to specifically address Johannessen's accusations.

But Knight, a retired Air Force colonel and specialist on veterans issues, said it was no secret that he and other Republicans wanted Johannessen fired.

"Everybody wanted to be the first in line to say to Arnold that the first thing he ought to do is fire" him, Knight said. "He got hired because of what he did in support of Davis and against the caucus. Fortunately, when Davis left, the payoff went with him."

Johannessen, a Republican from Redding, became at least the second appointee of Davis' to be fired by Schwarzenegger, who took office Monday. The first, Department of Motor Vehicles Director Steve Gurley, was ordered out a couple of hours after the governor was sworn in.

Last year and in 2001, Republicans blocked Senate approval of Davis' embattled budgets. Both times, Johannessen split from the GOP and joined Democrats to pass the spending programs. The first time he did so, Republicans did not punish him.

But in 2002, when Johannessen provided the decisive vote for the budget, Republicans were infuriated. As punishment, they refused to speak to him and banished him from their caucus strategy meetings. At the time, Johannessen denied rumors that he was in line for appointment to the veterans post.

Several weeks after Davis won reelection in 2002, he appointed Johannessen, who had retired from the Senate, as secretary of veterans affairs. Davis charged him with rehabilitating a department that had been hit by waves of scandal, including the controversial deaths of several vets at a state veterans home in Barstow.

At the time, Sen. Johnson denounced the appointment of Johannessen to the $131,400-a-year job as "pure political payoff." Davis denied the charge.

Johannessen said Wednesday that he got a call from a Schwarzenegger staffer Monday evening. He said the staffer told him that "I would not be retained. I said, 'OK. When is it effective? He said, 'Right now.' "

Spokesman Sollitto said Tuttle was an Air Force expert in budget, finance and accounting issues. As a civilian he was a senior financial planner. He served as a top administrator of the veterans department in 1995-99.

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