January 21, 1988
By LAURIE ASSEO
PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) — Gov. Evan Mecham angrily sought to interfere with a 1987 probe of an alleged death threat, the state police chief told a House committee considering impeachment of the embattled governor.
However, Ralph Milstead, director of the Department of Public Safety and the first witness to testify before the panel, said he was not certain whether the Republican governor’s action constituted an illegal obstruction of justice.
In a KOLD-TV interview after Wednesday night’s hearing, Mecham called Milstead’s account “the most far-fetched thing that I’ve ever heard of.”
The governor said he will prove he’s not guilty of violating any laws, “and when I do there’s going to be an awful lot of people with some great big egg on their faces.”
Earlier this week, Mecham told fellow guests at a breakfast that he was concerned that laser beams were being used to eavesdrop on his office and home.
House members who attended the hearing said they wanted to hear more before deciding whether to impeach Mecham for reportedly trying to thwart the investigation of one of his appointees.
Mecham also is accused of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan and borrowing $80,000 in what the House special counsel contends is state money from the governor’s protocol fund. The House select committee is expected to hear witnesses on all three areas before the full House decides – possibly as early as next week – whether the governor will be impeached.
Mecham, who faces a likely recall election in May, is to be arraigned Friday on six felony counts of fraud, perjury and filing false documents in connection with his failure to report the $350,000 loan.
Milstead told the committee that on Nov. 15, Mecham told him, “Don’t tell the attorney general anything” about the alleged death threat against Donna Carlson, a former top Mecham aide and a grand jury witness in connection with the $350,000 loan.
Milstead quoted the governor as saying that Attorney General Bob Corbin “is out to hang me and I’m not going to help him in any way. I don’t want you to help him get me.”
“I was completely taken aback by this,” Milstead told the committee. “His anger toward the attorney general surprised me. I don’t know why he didn’t want me to cooperate.”
Lee Watkins, then the head of state prison construction and a former Mecham campaign finance worker, was accused of threatening Ms. Carlson’s life but has denied making any such threat. Milstead said he thought Mecham was attempting to protect Watkins, who was subsequently investigated by the grand jury.
Milstead acknowledged he had not tape-recorded the conversation and said that during the conversation Mecham did not threaten to take any action against him if he cooperated with the attorney general.
The public safety director said he was not certain whether the governor’s statements to him constituted an obstruction of justice in the legal sense.
Committee Chairman Jim Skelly, a Republican, said after the hearing that it was uncertain whether Mecham’s comments to Milstead were a willful violation of the law.
A majority of the 60-member House is needed to impeach the governor, while a Senate trial would require two-thirds of the 30 votes to convict him.
Lawyer Ernest Calderon and another guest sitting at Mecham’s table at a meeting of the Phoenix Forum Breakfast Club on Tuesday told the Arizona Republic of the governor’s remark about laser surveillance.
Calderon said he did a double take, according to the story in today’s Republic.
“We looked at each other aghast,” said Calderon. “I thought my hearing was failing. I couldn’t believe it.”
Another man at the table who asked not to be identified quoted Mecham as saying: “Whenever I’m in my house or my office, I always have a radio on. It keeps the lasers out.”
The man said the governor was deadly serious.
“We said, ‘What lasers?’ and he said, ‘The lasers for eavesdropping. They’re eavesdropping on me. They’re shooting lasers through the windows.”‘
Ken Smith, Mecham’s press secretary, said that there is continuing concern that the governor’s office is the target of some sort of electronic surveillance.
Smith said no evidence of such eavesdropping has been uncovered, but he said the suspected device would be more like a microwave than a laser beam.