Mecham defense targets key witness Milstead

March 2, 1988

By Mary T. Schmich
Chicago Tribune

PHOENIX — The Evan Mecham affair finally has the one ingredient it needed to qualify as prime-time drama: sex. If Mecham`s attorneys get their wish, that three-letter word will help discredit one of the chief witnesses against the impeached governor.

The witness is one of Mecham`s longtime foes, Ralph Milstead, director of the state`s Department of Public Safety.

On Tuesday, the second day of Mecham`s impeachment trial before the Arizona Senate, Mecham`s attorneys were being teasingly secretive about the alleged offense that would impugn Milstead and redeem Mecham, a former Pontiac dealer who took office 13 months ago.

“We got a phone call that resulted in testimony being taken Sunday night from 7:45 until 10 o`clock, which will cast doubt on the integrity of the main witness, Mr. Milstead,” attorney Fred Craft told the Senate in an opening argument full of dramatic flourishes.

Craft didn`t have to be so circumspect. The senators got a sneak preview of the allegations Monday when copies of one of the defense`s depositions were mistakenly distributed among them. The documents were hastily retrieved, but not before a few senators skimmed them.

Details of the depositions are murky, but apparently a woman who once worked for the Department of Public Safety claims she had an affair with Milstead five years ago while he was married. When the woman later married another department employee, Milstead threatened to fire the man if word leaked out of the affair. The man was eventually fired.

“A ridiculous bunch of lies,” responded Milstead.

William French, the attorney for the board of managers of the House of Representatives, which impeached Mecham on Feb. 5, concurred.

“This is being done because there is no defense,” he told the Senate. He urged that senators “keep their eye on the ball” and not be distracted by personal attacks on key witnesses.

The senators, who serve as judge and jury in the impeachment trial, heard opening arguments on the first of three impeachment charges Tuesday, as well as testimony from Mecham`s former bodyguard and another public safety employee, both prosecution witnesses.

In addition to the first charge-that Mecham blocked the state attorney general`s investigation into a death threat by one of his former aides against another former aide-the governor faces allegations that he concealed a $350,000 campaign loan and lent $80,000 from his inaugural fund to his car dealership. He is scheduled for a criminal trial on March 22 in connection with the campaign loan and a recall election on May 17.

Mecham was absent from Tuesday`s proceedings, as he had been Monday.

In his opening argument, Craft tried to depict Mecham as an establishment outsider and idealist who fell victim to mutinous insiders, notably Milstead and Atty. Gen. Bob Corbin.

“There`s something wrong in this state when you can depose a constitutionally elected officer of the state and throw the book at him in three different forums at the same time based upon evidence by people who have a stake in having him ousted,” Craft said.

French argued that Mecham obstructed justice when he ordered that one of his allies in the Department of Administration rather than the attorney general investigate the death threat.

On Tuesday the state Supreme Court refused Mecham`s request to delay the Senate trial until after his criminal trial.

Mecham has said the impeachment proceedings will prejudice his criminal trial.

“We readily acknowledge the governor is entitled to due process,” the court said in its 4-0 ruling. “However, that concept does not protect his right to hold office as governor.”

The court said the impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding but rather a legislative proceeding intended only to decide whether to remove a state officer.