Four members of the Arizona Corporation Commission have asked the fifth, Jim Irvin, to resign.
In a private meeting Tuesday, the four members, all Republicans like Irvin, told their embattled colleague that his continued service as a state utility regulator is not in the best interests of the state.
But Irvin is not leaving.
He and his family have hired a lobbyist, a publicist and a highpowered legal firm to try to block his colleagues from publicly calling for him to resign, possibly as early as next week, or stop a call for his impeachment, Capitol Media Services has learned.
Lobbyist Barry Aarons and attorney Jeffrey Walsh visited commissioners this week asking them to delay any public pronouncements until Irvin has exhausted his appeals of a $60.4 million judgment against him. That process could take years.
Walsh followed up with a letter to ACC Chairman Marc Spitzer seeking an open, public commission meeting to air the issue no earlier than next Thursday to give Irvin "a reasonable opportunity to prepare his case.’’
Spitzer said the letter seeks to intimidate him and other commissioners not to speak out. He said elected officials have a constitutional right to express their opinions, just as former Gov. Jane Hull and current Gov. Janet Napolitano already have urged Irvin to resign.
Spitzer said Irvin, of Scottsdale, defended himself to his colleagues at the Tuesday meeting.
"He’s never been a bashful guy,’’ he said.
The commissioners are looking at more than the decision by jurors last year that Irvin used his position to undermine a corporate merger. Two top commission staff members also reported that Irvin subsequently attempted to intercede in a different commission inquiry, this one involving the brother of one of his campaign workers.
Also in Irvin’s public relations and legal defense team is Florida lawyer Barry Richard, best known for his 2000 defense of the Bush election campaign before the Florida Supreme Court. Richard said he will be lead counsel on efforts to overturn last year’s jury verdict and also could intercede in any impeachment efforts.
Richard said the lawsuit against Irvin raises questions.
That action was filed by Southern Union Co. of Texas after its unsuccessful bid for Southwest Gas.
The jury concluded Irvin used his position as a state utility regulator to undermine Southern Union’s bid and convince Southwest to accept a less lucrative one from Oneok Inc., an Oklahoma company.
All the other defendants in the case, including officials from Southwest Gas and Oneok, as well as Jack Rose, Irvin’s hand-picked aide, settled out of court. Irvin, the lone surviving defendant, was assessed nearly $400,000 in compensatory damages and $60 million in punitive damages.
"It raises significant issues relating to the traditional protections that are designed to give people a comfort level of serving in public office,’’ Richard said.
He said the decision by U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver of even letting the case go to trial undermines the tradition of immunity for public officials for public acts. But Silver ruled early in the case Irvin was not entitled to immunity because he was not acting on behalf of the state but instead on his own.
Richard also wants to dissuade commissioners — and, if necessary, state lawmakers — from proceeding with impeachment, at least while the case is on appeal.
Irvin also has retained Cheryl Walsh and Growth Strategies Group, a Phoenix public relations firm she founded, to make his case to the media. And Aarons said he was retained by the California public relations firm of Sergeant Major Associates. That firm, he said, was hired by ATI Systems International, the California-based security and armored car company owned by Irvin’s family. His father, Robert, is chief executive officer and his brother, Richard, is president.
Cheryl Walsh said Irvin will not disclose his financial interest in the family firm. She also said that Irvin, who does not return media calls, "was a little astonished’’ by the request of his colleagues that he quit.
While Irvin came under fire after the jury verdict, attitudes of his colleagues became decidedly more hostile with the incidents surrounding a commission investigation of American National Mortgage Partners.
Irvin had recused himself in all matters involving that firm, saying he had a political relationship with the brother of one of the "respondents’’ in the case.
But the report by commission staff attorney Chris Kempley and Brian McNeil, the commission’s executive secretary, said Irvin met with the hearing officer assigned to the case and even suggested the company was the victim of "selective enforcement.’’ Irvin also participated in a procedural conference on the case.
Kempley, in a separate letter Thursday, rejected Jeffrey Walsh’s call for an open meeting on the issue of commissioners calling for Irvin’s resignation or impeachment.