Arizona Senate Hears Governor Deny Charges

March 17, 1988

Special to the New York Times

Under attack at the polls, in criminal court and in the State Senate, Evan Mecham took the stand here today to defend himself in the first impeachment trial of a governor in almost 60 years.

Looking relaxed, testifying in a soft voice and laughing frequently, Mr. Mecham began by denying charges that he had sold jobs in his administration to successful fund-raisers.

The Governor, on trial in the Arizona Senate, said that the theme of his campaign was to “rid the state of corruption.” He added that he had frequently told his fund-raisers that a “a contribution buys you better government and nothing else.”

Mr. Mecham spent an hour on the stand portraying himself as a political outsider who, from the moment of his election, was under a concentrated attack from State Attorney General Robert Corbin and the press. Both Mr. Mecham and Mr. Corbin are Republicans.

He said he was surrounded by political enemies who released inside information in an attempt to damage his administration. He admitted only two mistake: offending some powerful interests by moving too fast to bring about changes in government and naivete.

“But you can’t go through life mistrusting people,” Mr. Mecham said.

This was the Governor’s first appearance at his impeachment trial, which began Feb. 29. He will return to testify Thursday. He has said he was too busy to attend.

Mr. Mecham stepped down from office and the acting Governor is Rose Mofford, Arizona’s Secretary of State. Prosecution Witness Assailed

The Senate trial, which began in a somber mood, has developed in recent days into a political brawl. Between blistering attacks on prosecuting attorneys, Mr. Mecham’s lawyers have concentrated on portraying the prosecution’s chief witness, Ralph Milstead, the chief of the Arizona State Police, as a power hungry liar.

Mr. Milstead has testified that the Governor ordered him not to cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation into the report of a death threat against Mr. Mecham’s legislative assistant. She was cooperating with a grand jury inquiry into the Governor’s finances.

The Governor’s lawyers had earlier accused Mr. Milstead of engaging in illicit sexual affairs. Mr. Milstead has denied the allegations and has threatened to sue for slander.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon Jr., who is presiding over the trial, barred introduction of a deposition about Mr. Milstead’s sex life as irrelevant. Yet it remains a strong undercurrent.

Christiana Johnston, a former informer for the state police, testified Tuesday that she once had a “personal and intimate” relationship with Mr. Milstead. Witness Intimidation Charged

In another series of legal maneuvers, prosecutors and defense lawyers in recent days have traded charges of witness tampering. Mr. Mecham’s lawyer, Fred Craft, said he could document “an insidious pattern” of witnesses being intimidated by the state police.

He noted that a defense witness had recently been arrested on a two-month old warrant charging her with failure to attend a school for people convicted of drunken driving. Mr. Craft moved to have the charges against the Governor dismissed or a mistrial declared.

The Senate, by a voice vote, rejected the appeal today.

The prosecutor, William French, has accused the defense attorney of trying to intimidate another witness at a pretrial intervied. $350,000 Loan Questioned Mr. Mecham is charged with obstruction of justice, illegally using $80,000 in state money to bail out his financially strapped suburban Pontiac dealership and concealing a $350,000 campaign loan from a developer.

In the equivalent of an indictment, Mr. Mecham was impeached by the State House by a vote of 46 to 14 on Feb. 5. A few days later the House approved and sent to the Senate 23 impeachment articles, the equivalent of counts in an indictment.

The 63-year-old Governor, who was elected in 1986 on his fifth bid for the office with 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race, also faces a criminal trial on March 22 on charges that he violated state election laws by concealing the campaign loan. Recall Election in May

In addition to the impeachment and criminal trials, he must run again in a May 17 election prompted by a successful petition drive to recall him from office.

Since his indictment, Mr. Mecham has barnstormed the state denying any wrongdoing. He and his supporters said he is the victim of a lynch mob whipped up by his enemies in the press, particularly the state’s dominant newspaper, The Arizona Republic.

A two-thirds majority of the 30-member Senate is required to convict Mr. Mecham, the first Republican to win the governorship in 12 years. There are 19 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the Senate. So far, the trial has focused solely on the obstruction of justice charge.

The impeachment trial is the first of a governor since 1929 when the Oklahoma Senate convicted Henry S. Johnston for working for the Ku Klux Klan, accoring to Thad Beyle, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since the colonies joined to form the United States, 16 governors have been impeached, several twice, and seven have been convicted.