House Speaker Jake Flake, R-Snowflake, on Friday ordered his staff to accelerate its investigation into the possible impeachment of state utility regulator Jim Irvin in the wake of the settlement of a civil suit against him.
Flake said he is infuriated by the fact that state taxpayers will pay out more than $380,000 to settle a claim against Irvin. And that figure does not include more than $200,000 the state paid to hire an attorney to defend Irvin against the claims by Jim Fisher, an employee of the Arizona Corporation Commission. Fisher claimed he was the victim of retaliation by the commissioner.
"I was going slow and easy'' on the inquiry into whether Irvin's actions in that case and two other incidents merited impeachment, Flake said.
"This is going to have to accelerate the pace,'' the speaker said of the settlement. "We can't have many more of these deals.''
The state already paid out $5.6 million to defend Irvin and Jack Rose, his aide, in separate case that resulted in a $60.4 million jury verdict against Irvin.
That flow of cash was halted in March when Gov. Janet Napolitano ordered the state to stop financing Irvin's appeal of that verdict. She concluded that Irvin was not acting in the course and scope of his employment when, as jurors concluded, he used his official position to undermine the efforts by one company to purchase Southwest Gas.
Fisher, at the time an aide to Commissioner Tony West, had furnished some information about Irvin's activities to the unsuccessful bidder for the gas company. The result was a news release by Irvin about Fisher and other efforts to have Fisher fired from the commission.
Cheryl Walsh, Irvin's spokeswoman, said the decision to settle with Fisher was made by the state which was paying Irvin's attorney — and facing payment for any jury verdict if the case had gone to trial. She said Irvin denies that he libeled Fisher in the news release or otherwise acted improperly.
But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Cathy Holt said last year Irvin's comments about Fisher were libelous per se.
Irvin has sought to block impeachment, pointing out he never has been charged with any crime, much less been convicted. But the state constitution allows the House to bring a bill of impeachment against elected officials not only on criminal matters but also malfeasance, something that affects the performance of official duties.
Flake said he could not provide a timeline for events, other than to say his first priority remains to get the Legislature to adopt a budget, something he said should take a week or two.