Impeachment trial in Arizona is a soap opera

March 5, 1988

Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) — With its allegations of death threats, sexual affairs and political payoffs, Gov. Evan Mecham’s impeachment trial is becoming Arizona’s favorite soap opera.

When testimony heated up last week in the nation’s first impeachment trial of a governor in six decades, the spectators’ gallery at the Arizona Senate was filled to capacity.

TV and radio stations which carried the proceedings from gavel to gavel say they’ve had positive feedback from a larger than usual audience.

“We are in this for the duration,” said Dan Durrenberger, station manager of television station KAET, the public broadcasting affiliate which carries the impeachment proceedings live.

He said the station is getting a higher than usual volume of viewer calls and the majority are “thanking us for broadcasting the trial.” Only four callers complained that other programming was pre-empted, he said.

Trial watchers have heard witnesses detail what they say was a threat by a Mecham aide to kill a witness testifying before a grand jury investigating the Republican governor’s campaign finances. They’ve heard tales of political jobs for sale and have listened to senators debate whether sex has a place in the proceedings.

“This is neither a circus nor another episode of ‘Peyton Place,”‘ said Democratic Sen. Jesus “Chuy” Higuera who was outraged at an effort by Mecham’s lawyers to attack one of the governor’s key accusers with accounts of alleged sexual exploits.

Another senator suggested that Arizona would become world famous for dispensing “cactus justice” or “frontier justice” if such inflammatory claims were permitted.

“Clearly, the introduction of this evidence would make these proceedings more sensational and titillating,” said Republican Sen. Greg Lunn.

Lunn added that it would be unfair to allow airing of clearly irrelevant evidence concerning an alleged 1982 affair between Department of Public Safety Director Ralph Milstead and one of his former employees.

The woman reportedly claimed that Milstead threatened her with death if she disclosed their affair.

With Milstead scheduled to take the witness stand Monday, the senators decided to resist hearing the allegations, which Milstead branded “a ridiculous pack of lies.”

“I don’t believe the entire life of director Milstead is on trial,” said Lunn. “The character and actions of Gov. Mecham are on trial.”

Mecham, 63, a former automobile dealer who won the governorship on his fifth try, is boycotting the trial. He says he’ll appear only when he needs to testify.

He prefers to take his case to the people and can be seen around town giving speeches at luncheon meetings, addressing defense fund-raising rallies or appearing on television.

“I have broken no laws,” he declared in many forums last week, including morning network television programs.

Mecham is charged in 23 articles of impeachment with thwarting investigation of an alleged death threat against a grand jury witness, concealing a $350,000 campaign loan and misusing $80,000 from the governor’s protocol fund by loaning it to his car dealership.

If convicted by a two-thirds vote of the 30-member Senate, he would be removed from office. The senators could then take another vote to bar him from ever holding state office again.

Mecham’s problems don’t end with the impeachment trial. He faces a criminal trial on the loan charge Mar. 22 and a recall election May 17.

Meanwhile the senators, who have dropped most other business to sit as judge and jury in the impeachment trial, grew restive by the end of the first week’s testimony and demanded that things move faster.

Asked about impressions of the first week’s disclosures, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Allan Stephens said he was surprised at the level of tension, suspicion and secrecy which pervaded Mecham’s executive offices on the ninth floor of the capitol.

“What disturbs me,” said Stephens “is that there was such an air of fear and intimidation in the Mecham administration. It’s incredible.”

He noted that key witness Peggy Griffith spoke of being afraid to discuss important matters on the telephone.

“I preferred to do that in person,” she said, indicating a fear that phones were bugged.

“It must have been a very chaotic, frenzied atmosphere on the ninth floor,” Stephens said.