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WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the troubled Phoenix veterans' hospital was fired Monday as the Veterans Affairs Department continued its crackdown on wrongdoing in the wake of a nationwide scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the delays.
Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, was ousted nearly seven months after she and two high-ranking officials were placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into allegations that 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at the hospital. Helman had led the giant Phoenix facility, which treats more than 80,000 veterans a year, since February 2012.
The Phoenix hospital was at the center of the wait-time scandal, which led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new, $16 billion law overhauling the labyrinthine veterans' health care system.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Helman's dismissal underscores the agency's commitment to hold leaders accountable and ensure that veterans have access to high-quality, timely care.
An investigation by the VA's office of inspector general found that workers at the Phoenix VA hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. At least 40 patients died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, the report said, but officials could not "conclusively assert" that delays in care caused the deaths.
About 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off the official waiting list at the troubled Phoenix hospital, the IG's office said.
"Lack of oversight and misconduct by VA leaders runs counter to our mission of serving veterans, and VA will not tolerate it," McDonald said in a statement late Monday. "We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first."
Helman is the fifth senior executive fired or forced to resign in recent weeks in response to the wait-time scandal.
Helman did not immediately respond to telephone messages Monday from The Associated Press.
Helman, who has worked at the VA since 1990, has been on paid leave since May 1, shortly after a former clinic director at the Phoenix site alleged that up to 40 patients may have died because of delays in care and that the hospital kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide the treatment delays.
Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring last December, brought the allegations to light and says supervisors ignored his complaints for months.
In an interview with the AP in May, hours before being placed on administrative leave, Helman denied any knowledge of a secret list and said she had found no evidence of patient deaths due to delayed care.
Helman told the AP that she takes her job seriously and was personally offended by the claims of misconduct.
"I have given over 20 years of service to this mission. I am proud to lead this hospital," Helman said. "I have never wavered from the ethical standards that I have held my entire career, and I will continue to give these veterans what they deserve, which is the best health care."
Associated Press writer Brian Skoloff in Phoenix contributed to this story.
PHOENIX -- Thousands of Arizona "dreamers'' could be driving here legally within days.
A court has rejected Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's request to reconsider a ruling that blocked her policy of denying driver's licenses to young immigrants who have avoided deportation under an Obama administration policy.
Will Katy Perry be a firework at the Super Bowl? Will she show them what she's worth? Will she let her colors burst?
San Diego resident and Navy veteran Jim Jengeleski walked into a Chandler dental office with a request.
Not even waiting until President Obama gave his speech Thursday night, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio filed suit in federal court seeking to block the announced plans to allow millions of people not in this country to remain and work here legally.
PHOENIX -- Arizona gained 24,700 private-sector jobs last month, enough to push the state's seasonally adjusted jobless rate down a tenth of a point, to 6.8 percent.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Spurning furious Republicans, President Barack Obama unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration Thursday night to spare nearly 5 million people in the U.S. illegally from deportation and refocus enforcement efforts on "felons, not families."
The moves, affecting mostly parents and young people, marked the most sweeping changes to the nation's fractured immigration laws in nearly three decades and set off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers.
In a televised address to the nation, Obama defended the legality of his actions and challenged GOP lawmakers to focus their energy not on blocking his actions, but on approving long-stalled legislation to take its place.
"To those members of Congress who question my authority to make our immigration system work better, or question the wisdom of me acting where Congress has failed, I have one answer: Pass a bill," Obama said, flexing his presidential powers just two weeks after his political standing was challenged in the midterm elections.
As Obama addressed the nation from the White House, immigration supporters with American flags draped over their shoulders marched on the street outside carrying signs that read, "Gracias, Presidente Obama."
Despite Obama's challenge to Republicans to pass a broader immigration bill, his actions and the angry GOP response could largely stamp out prospects for Congress passing comprehensive legislation under the current administration, ensuring that the contentious debate will carry on into the 2016 presidential campaign.
Republicans, emboldened by their sweeping victories in the midterms, are weighing responses to the president's actions that include lawsuits, a government shutdown, and in rare instances, even impeachment.
"The president will come to regret the chapter history writes if he does move forward," Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is soon to become the Senate majority leader, said before Obama's address.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has refused to have his members vote on broad immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year, said Obama's decision to go it alone "cemented his legacy of lawlessness and squandered what little credibility he had left."
While Obama's measures are sweeping in scope, they still leave more than half of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally in limbo. The president announced new deportation priorities that would compel law enforcement to focus its efforts on tracking down serious criminals and people who have recently crossed the border, while specifically placing a low priority on those who have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years.
He insisted that his actions did not amount to amnesty.
"Amnesty is the immigration system we have today — millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time," he said.
The main beneficiaries of the president's actions are immigrants who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than five years but whose children are citizens or lawful permanent residents. After passing background checks and paying fees, those individuals can now be granted relief from deportation for three years and get work permits. The administration expects about 4.1 million people to qualify.
Obama is also broadening his 2012 directive that deferred deportation for some young immigrants who entered the country illegally. Obama will expand eligibility to people who arrived in the U.S. as minors before 2010, instead of the current cutoff of 2007, and will lift the requirement that applicants be under 31. The expansion is expected to affect about 300,000 people.
Applications for the new deportation deferrals will begin in the spring.
Immigration-rights activists gathered at watch parties around the country to listen to the president announce actions they have sought for years.
"We're going to have plenty of Kleenex around," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
The White House insists Obama has the legal authority to halt deportations for parents and for people who came to the U.S. as children, primarily on humanitarian grounds. Officials also cited precedents set by previous immigration executive actions by Democratic and Republican presidents dating back to Dwight Eisenhower.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Turkey production is at its lowest level in nearly three decades and wholesale prices are at an all-time high, but Thanksgiving cooks probably won't see much difference in the price they pay at the stores for their frozen birds.
Arizona gained 24,700 private sector jobs last month, enough to push the state's seasonally adjusted jobless rate down a tenth of a point, to 6.8 percent. But all indications are that many of these aren't necessarily the best jobs in the world.
PHOENIX (AP) — An environmental group says it will appeal a judge's ruling that resulted in no special protection for bald eagles nesting in central Arizona.
U.S. District Judge David Campbell issued the ruling earlier this month.
The Center for Biological Diversity had sought federal protection for eagles found in the Sonoran Desert as a distinct population. The group says no other bald eagles live in such a hot and dry environment.
The lawsuit came as a result of a 2012 finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that said the state's population doesn't contribute significantly to the overall population.
Bald eagles nationwide were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007.
Robin Silver of the Center for Biological Diversity says the latest Fish and Wildlife finding doesn't align with previous findings.
PHOENIX (AP) — The Pima County Board of Supervisors Tuesday rejected a request from Democratic Rep. Ron Barber to delay certifying election results as he challenges the reasons ballots that could shrink Republican challenger Martha McSally's slim vote lead weren't counted.
Kevin Hamilton, a lawyer representing Barber's campaign, said in a letter to the board that there are more than 130 rejected ballots that should have been counted. Barber's campaign has collected affidavits from voters who said they were qualified to cast a ballot but had their ballots rejected.
"As a result, if the board certifies the canvass without correcting all the errors in the vote count, there is a real possibility that the election for Arizona's second congressional district will be improperly certified for the wrong candidate," Hamilton wrote.
Barber trails Republican challenger Martha McSally by 161 votes out of more than 220,000 cast in Arizona's 2nd Congressional District.
McSally attorney Eric Spencer told the board that the only legal reason to delay the canvass was if votes were missing, and none were. He said Barber's challenge to the uncounted ballots properly belongs in court, in an election challenge.
Supervisor Ramon Valadez agreed. "We are not equipped to adjudicate these issues. We frankly are not. We're not the right body," Valadez said.
The election is headed for an automatic recount because the two candidates are separated by less than one-tenth of one percent — slightly more than 200 votes. That recount will be done early next month after the official statewide canvass and involve Cochise and Pima counties.
Hamilton said the next step is to challenge the statewide canvass. He would not speculate on possible court challenges.
"I'm disappointed that the board took that step," Hamilton said. "I think it's a mistake, and we'll be examining our options about where we go from here."
The board certified the election results Tuesday afternoon. Cochise County, the other part of the 2nd District, is set to certify its canvass Thursday, and Barber's lawyers expect to send a similar letter to those elected officials.
"Usually the results aren't as close as these, but when you have a race with a razor thin-lead and you have Americans whose votes have not been counted because of an honest mistake by a poll worker, that's something that needs to be fixed," said Rodd McLeod, a Barber campaign consultant.
The challenge is not the first of this election for Barber's district. McSally's lawyers unsuccessfully challenged the counting of some provisional ballots last week.
McSally has declared victory, but Barber hasn't conceded, saying a recount could change the outcome.
If McSally ultimately prevails, it would be the only victory by a Republican in the three Arizona congressional seats now held by Democrats that Republicans targeted this year. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema easily won re-election.
Barber won a special election in June 2012 to replace his former boss, Rep. Gabby Giffords, who resigned because of health reasons. She and Barber were both wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt.
McSally is a former Air Force pilot who lost to Barber in the 2012 general election but redoubled her effort this year.
PHOENIX -- The number of people in Arizona illegally dropped by close to 12 percent between 2009 and 2012 according to a new study.
The fact that politics may have been involved in drawing legislative lines is no reason to declare them illegal, the attorney for the Independent Redistricting Commission is urging the U.S. Supreme Court.
More infants died in Arizona last year from unsafe sleep environments than motor vehicle accidents.
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — A man accused of sexually assaulting a 91-year-old woman in Tempe last month is being held without bond, authorities said Wednesday.
Ekwunze Job Owen Jr., 24, was taken into custody early Wednesday near the Arizona State University campus, according to Tempe police. He didn't have a lawyer at his initial court appearance, and a public defender was being appointed to his case.
Owen allegedly entered a woman's home last Saturday and then fled when she began screaming for help, police said. It was after the incident that Owen was positively identified as a suspect through DNA, police said.
Tempe Police Cmdr. Kim Hale said Owen allegedly has admitted to some of the crimes, including the October sexual assault.
Owen also is accused of at least three incidents of indecent exposure in Mesa since February 2012.
Police said Owen allegedly left DNA at several crime scenes, and it was matched to the suspect in the sexual assault of the 91-year-old woman on Oct. 18.
Officers with Tempe police, Mesa police and the U.S. Marshals Service worked to track down Owen.
Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead said at a news conference that during the course of the investigation, authorities realized there was an established pattern and that the suspect was a "serialized criminal" and had been preying upon vulnerable victims.
"This guy was an opportunist," Milstead said. "He knocked doors in the area asking people to use their phone. He tried to befriend people."
The series of incidents began in Mesa in January 2012, and investigators have compiled information about trespassing and indecent exposures since then.
If the last quilt you laid eyes on is the threadbare and well-loved relic at the foot of your bed, you’re in for a surprise at Chandler Center for the Arts’ newest gallery exhibition. The annual Art Quilts show puts nearly 70 contemporary “stories in stitches” on display.
PHOENIX (AP) — Democratic Rep. Ron Barber Tuesday fell short of the votes he needed to overcome Republican Martha McSally's lead in Arizona's 2nd Congressional District race, barring a recount change or the late tally of a small number of outstanding provisional ballots that swings the race his way.
Barber was trailing McSally by 133 votes after Pima County election officials counted about 2,660 remaining ballots from the district Tuesday.
McSally said she was confident her lead would hold.
An estimated 200 conditional provisional ballots could still be counted if voters go to the county recorder's office and show needed identification by Wednesday. Not all of those are in the 2nd District.
McSally is a former Air Force pilot who lost to Barber in 2012 but redoubled her effort this year. National Republicans spent millions of dollars to back her, while national Democrats spent heavily to defend Barber.
If the count holds at less than about 200 votes between the candidates, it triggers an automatic recount. That would happen early next month.
A recount in a statewide race last occurred in 2010, when Proposition 212 failed by just 192 votes after nearly 1.6 million were cast. The results changed the total for each side by 33 votes but did not change the outcome
About 220,000 votes have been cast in the current 2nd District race.
Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Bennett, said the swing in the 2010 race was tiny, and he would expect the same to happen if the Barber-McSally race goes to a recount.
"People should trust in the fact that elections officials will come up with the same number or thereabouts twice," Roberts said. "Our election equipment is something that works very well."
The race is one of only five congressional seats still undecided nationally. Three House seats in California and one in New York also remain too close to call.
Barber picked up 162 votes Monday and was trailing McSally by 179 votes on Tuesday morning. But he picked up just 46 votes after the final batch of verified provisional ballots were counted.
Barber spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn in a statement said the race remained too close to call.
"This is the closest congressional election in Arizona history," she said. "The law calls for an automatic recount in a race this close, and that is where we are headed."
She also noted that nearly 800 provisional ballots were rejected by the county recorder.
McSally's campaign failed in an effort to challenge some provisional ballots on Monday, and both sides have lawyers watching the counting.
She said in a statement that she's grateful for the support she's seen during the weeklong vote-counting.
"There are still ballots left to count, but we are confident that when all ballots are in, our lead will hold," she said. "We will continue to provide oversight of the process until then."
If McSally wins, it will be the only victory out of three Arizona congressional seats held by Democrats that Republicans targeted this year. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema easily won re-election.
Barber had an early lead on election night, but the race swung to McSally early the next day when Cochise County began reporting its results and Barber has never regained the lead.
McSally was 509 votes ahead on Friday, but Barber picked up 168 votes on Sunday and 162 votes Monday, cutting that lead to the current 179. Elections workers counted 5,434 ballots on those days.
McSally and Barber faced off in a similar battle during the 2012 election. Barber trailed for days, finally taking the lead on the Friday after Election Day. The race remained too close to call for another week.
Barber had won a special election to replace his former boss, Rep. Gabby Giffords, just months before the November 2012 election. He was with Giffords the previous year in Tucson when she was shot in the head and ultimately had to step down from her seat. Barber was hit in the thigh and cheek.
The number of valley fever cases in Arizona dropped dramatically last year, a change that state health officials attribute to a change in testing methods but possibly other factors also.
Months of uncertainty for state educators concluded on Nov. 3 with the selection of a new state assessment test, although the details concerning the implementation of the exam remain up in the air.
PHOENIX (AP) — The vote count in Arizona's 2nd Congressional District seat is shaping up as a near mirror of the 2012 race, when the two candidates didn't find out for more than a week who had won the race.
Democratic Rep. Ron Barber and Republican Martha McSally are keeping a close eye on the emerging vote tally in two southern Arizona counties that make up the district as they remain separated by a razor-thin vote margin.
McSally's lead of 363 votes grew to 509 votes Friday night with new votes counted in Republican-leaning Cochise County and Democrat-leaning Pima County.
McSally is taking 60 percent of the vote in Cochise County, and there are fewer than 1,200 provisional ballots to count here. Barber is taking 52 percent of the Pima County vote, and that county has 24,000 outstanding early and provisional ballots still to count.
Barber consultant Rodd McLeod said the trend is the same as in 2012, when election-night counts showed Barber trailing McSally before surging in late ballots to pull out a late victory.
"With more than 20,000 ballots to go, we're confident that Ron Barber will have been re-elected once the counting is all done," McLeod said.
McSally and Barber faced off in a similar battle during the 2012 election. Barber trailed for days, finally taking the lead on the Friday after Election Day. But the race remained too close to call for another week.
Barber had won a special election to replace his former boss, Rep. Gabby Giffords, just months before the November 2012 election. He was with Giffords at a constituent meet-and-greet in Tucson in January 2011 when a mentally ill man, Jared Lee Loughner, opened fire, killing six and wounding 13 others. Giffords was hit in the head and ultimately had to step down from her seat, while Barber was hit in the thigh and cheek.
McSally is a former Air Force pilot who was making her first run for political office. This year, she has emerged as a more polished candidate. With the swing district up for grabs in a Republican-leaning year, her efforts drew massive outside spending from GOP-leaning groups.
Barber also has benefited this year from a large amount of spending by Democratic groups and from Giffords' PAC.
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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov.-elect Doug Ducey is enlisting a big-name Republican former officeholder to head his transition committee.
Ducey announced Wednesday that former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl will serve as chairman of a committee that will identify people to serve in Ducey's administration.
Ducey defeated Democrat Fred DuVal in Tuesday's general election. Ducey will succeed fellow Republican Jan Brewer in the governor's office.
Ducey said he intends to lead in a "serious and substantive manner" and that Kyl's extensive experience and grasp of issues will serve Arizona well.
Ducey also said Kyl's appointment sends a message that the new administration will take what Ducey called a "reform- and substance-based approach" on issues such as education.
Kyl retired from the Senate after not running for a fourth term in 2012.
PHOENIX (AP) — Republican House Speaker Andy Tobin has conceded defeat in his bid to unseat Democrat Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.
Tobin says he called Kirkpatrick on Wednesday morning to offer his congratulations.
Kirkpatrick's lead widened overnight. On Wednesday morning, she held a nearly 7-point advantage over Tobin.
The race attracted attention and spending from the national parties as Kirkpatrick was viewed as a vulnerable Democrat.
Kirkpatrick is a former state lawmaker who has had a bumpy ride as a member of Congress.
She was first elected in 2008, lost in 2010 in midterm races and returned to Congress in 2012.
The district spans from Flagstaff to the northern Tucson suburbs.
Congressional District 5 Republican Matt Salmon held off Democrat James Woods on Tuesday to retain his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.