Mecham Boycotts Impeachment Trial Opening

March 1, 1988

By TAMARA JONES
Los Angeles Times

PHOENIX — A defiant Gov. Evan Mecham boycotted his impeachment trial Monday as the country’s first such proceeding in 56 years opened without fanfare.

The 63-year-old conservative Republican appeared calm and in good humor at a press conference he called while the Arizona Senate was spending the day slogging through various defense motions.

“If I receive a fair trial, the truth will prevail and I will be acquitted of all charges,” Mecham declared from the offices he calls his “government in exile,” 40 minutes from the Capitol.

Mecham is accused of “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office” in the 23 articles of impeachment the Arizona House of Representatives approved three weeks ago.

Specifically, the first-term governor is accused of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan, misusing $80,000 from the state protocol fund by lending it to his auto dealership and obstructing justice by trying to thwart an investigation of an alleged death threat by a state official against a grand jury witness.

Denies Wrongdoing

He has denied any wrongdoing, saying the failure to disclose the loan from Tempe developer Barry Wolfson was “an honest mistake” by his brother, Willard Mecham, who served as campaign treasurer and also faces trial. The loan was repaid. Mecham also contends the $80,000 was private–not public–money that he merely invested wisely. He says the obstruction of justice charge is without foundation.

“This indictment should be thrown out,” argued the governor’s chief attorney, Jerris Leonard, who took over the defense just last week.

“This man hasn’t dipped his hands into public funds. He hasn’t ripped off the public treasury,” Leonard said.

One of the state’s two key prosecutors, Paul Eckstein, heatedly responded that Mecham’s conduct, even if it did not violate Arizona statutes, “grossly offends the people of this state.”

Monday’s seven-hour session drew scant public interest at the Capitol, where the 192-seat spectator gallery remained little more than half filled.

“This whole thing is a farce from start to finish,” said Victor Balmer, a Scottsdale retiree wearing a Mecham For Governor T-shirt. “This is strictly a railroad job.”

In the sun-drenched plaza outside the Senate, a handful of Mecham supporters carried placards and buttonholed the press as schoolchildren on a field trip toured the grounds.

Mecham, asked why he did not attend the opening session, said: “I’ve been busy. I’ve got a lot of things to do.”

He said he would attend the historic proceeding “when my attorneys tell me.” His presence is not required unless he is subpoenaed.

Mecham said he “looked forward” to the opportunity to appear before the Senate.

“I’ve had the brickbats thrown at me and in reality, I’ve never had the opportunity to defend myself,” he said, sitting beneath a framed portrait of himself grinning broadly.

Judge and Jury

The 30-member Senate serves as judge and jury at the trial, which is expected to last up to two months. If found guilty by a two-thirds majority, Mecham could be permanently stripped of the governorship and barred from seeking public office again. Since his impeachment, Secretary of State Rose Mofford has been acting governor.

Mecham also faces a criminal trial, scheduled to begin March 22 in Superior Court, on six counts relating to the $350,000 campaign loan. If convicted on all counts, he would face a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.

Mecham also faces a recall election May 17 against a broad field of opponents.

The opening day of the impeachment trial focused on a series of fruitless motions by Leonard to have the charges dismissed or delayed until after Mecham’s criminal trial.

Opening arguments in the Senate trial were expected to be heard today.

Although currently powerless, Mecham continues to draw his $75,000 annual salary as governor and to make public appearances.

More than 100 potential opponents already have taken out papers to run in the recall election. Candidates have until March 18 to gather the 3,336 signatures needed to qualify for the ballot.

The hopefuls range from former U.S. House Minority Leader John J. Rhodes to unknown teachers, lawyers and ghoulish rock star Alice Cooper, who thinks his home state “needs a good heavy-metal governor.”

Mecham won office in 1986 on his fifth attempt, taking just under 40% of the vote in a three-way race. He first ran in 1964.

Even before he moved into the Capitol’s ninth-floor office, a recall movement began forming.

Spearheaded by a young Phoenix businessman named Ed Buck, the campaign to oust Mecham flourished as the new governor launched into what would become a series of controversial statements and appointments.

Mecham at first dismissed his detractors as “a band of homosexuals and a few dissident Democrats.” But as the cry for his ouster grew louder, the cool derision from the governor’s camp faded.

Recruiting Letters

About six weeks before the recall petitions were submitted last November, letters bearing the governor’s seal and stamped signature went out to 25,000 conservatives around the country.

The letter implored recipients to sell their homes, quit their jobs and move to Arizona to help Mecham fend off “the militant liberals and the homosexual lobby.” Mecham denied writing the letter, blaming it on a staff member with access to his autograph machine.

Mecham drew fire just two days after taking office, when he kept a campaign promise to rescind the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

His remarks — lampooned in the comic strip “Doonesbury” — offended Jews, Orientals, women, educators and other groups. His most controversial statement was his defense of the term “pickaninny” to describe black children.