Witness sure she told governor of death threat

March 21, 1988

By LAURIE ASSEO
Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) — A witness at Gov. Evan Mecham’s impeachment trial testified today that she was certain she told the governor of an investigation into an alleged death threat two days before he is accused of trying to hinder the probe.

Peggy Griffith, director of the Governor’s Office of Women’s Services, told the Senate, “I believed at the time he understood me.”

Mecham is accused of trying to thwart an investigation of the alleged threat, and he testified last week that he did not recall Mrs. Griffith telling him there was a probe.

Mrs. Grifith also said today that her secretary, Terri Fields, complained that Mecham and his attorney were “hounding” her about information on the alleged threat against another official.

Mrs. Griffith quoted Ms. Fields as saying, “They just keep asking me about the conversation you had with Lee Watkins,” who is accused of making the alleged threat.

Mecham is charged with ordering Department of Public Safety Director Ralph Milstead not to cooperate with the attorney general’s investigation of the alleged threat by Watkins, then head of state prison construction, against former top Mecham aide Donna Carlson.

It was Mrs. Griffith who reported the threat, and Ms. Fields testified for the defense earlier in the trial in an effort to discredit Mrs. Griffith’s testimony. Ms. Fields said Mrs. Griffith was sometimes forgetful and tended to exaggerate things.

Defense attorney Fred Craft, who cross-examined Mrs. Griffith today, asked if she had a “total recall” memory.

“When I hear a death threat I do,” Mrs. Griffith said.

She also said that during the first several days after the alleged threat occurred, “I felt very much like nobody believed what I was saying.”

At the time of the alleged Nov. 12 threat, Ms. Carlson was about to testify before a state grand jury on the governor’s unreported $350,000 campaign loan.

The governor’s defense attorney, Fred Craft, also is expected to be called to the stand before testimony is completed on the count involving the death threat. Craft attended a crucial meeting at which Mecham was told about the alleged threat.

Mecham also is accused in the impeachment trial of concealing the loan and misusing $80,000 in state funds by loaning the money to his auto dealership. Opening arguments were expected this week on the $80,000 loan.

On Sunday, with his impeachment trial entering its fourth week and some rocky testimony behind him, Mecham said he is still convinced the Senate will exonerate him.

“With the world looking on as they have, I can’t see how any of them (senators) who have any claim of judging on the evidence can do anything but exonerate me,” Mecham said.

Mecham spent part of three days on the stand last week, and contended he was the victim of an attempted mutiny by people in government, including Attorney General Bob Corbin and Milstead.

But his effort to discredit the former head of his DPS security detail, Lt. Beau Johnson, backfired Friday when Mecham admitted he lacked proof – as he earlier testified that he had – that Johnson had stolen an unrelated report on the agency from the governor’s office.

Johnson had reported the alleged death threat to Mecham, although the governor contends he was not adequately informed of the seriousness of the matter.

Mecham testified that Watkins told him he had been informed by Johnson’s supervisor, Lt. Col. James Chilcoat, that Johnson had taken the report.

However, Deputy DPS Director Lt. Col. Gary Phelps sparked applause and laughter from the gallery when he testified moments later that Watkins in fact had taken the report – which Watkins denied.

Mecham said Sunday he thought he had “not really” been hurt by his admission that he lacked the proof he had claimed under oath that he had. And, he said he hadn’t intended to make the claim against Johnson.

“I inadvertently used it when they were asking for a lot of things” during his testimony, Mecham said.

Mecham also said he believed Watkins “was telling the truth when he told me what Chilcoat told him.”

The defense also sought last week to discredit Milstead with testimony on his sex life by a woman who claimed to be his former lover, Christina Johnston. She was not allowed to give specifics, but said their relationship was “intimate and personal” and that she had been married “only six” times.

Mecham said he had never met Mrs. Johnston, but that he was told by Craft that she was “a very decent, honest person.”

“With the exception of Milstead, she marries men instead of just lives with them,” Mecham said. “Women who are vulnerable get taken advantage of by predatory men in this world.”

Mecham is the first U.S. governor to be impeached in six decades and the first ever in Arizona.

A two-thirds vote of the 30-member Senate is required to convict Mecham, and lawmakers also could decide to bar him from future public office.

Mecham also faces an April 21 criminal trial on charges of concealing the $350,000 campaign loan, and a May 17 recall election.