Mecham Spars With Prosecutor

March 18, 1988

By Paul Nussbaum
Philadelphia Inquirer

PHOENIX — In a sometimes stormy session at his impeachment trial, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham said yesterday that he was the victim of “the biggest miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

During a second day on the witness stand, before a packed gallery, Mecham sparred heatedly with prosecutor Paul Eckstein, drawing repeated admonishments from Supreme Court Chief Justice Francis Gordon to answer Eckstein’s questions.

The session yesterday focused on everything from Mecham’s distrust of the attorney general to his integrity as a car dealer.

“You must listen to me, you must listen to me,” Mecham exclaimed at one point during cross-examination, raising his voice over the prosecutor’s.

“You’re trying to impugn my honesty. … I earned the right to respond as I see fit.”

During his testimony, Mecham denied that he tried to block an investigation of an alleged death threat made by one gubernatorial aide against another.

The obstruction-of-justice charge is one of three general charges for which Mecham is being tried by the Senate. The other two involve an unreported $350,000 campaign loan and the diversion of $80,000 from an inaugural account to Mecham’s Pontiac dealership.

REMOVAL FROM OFFICE

If convicted, he would be removed permanently from office. Mecham, a conservative Republican, already has been forced to step down pending the outcome of the trial, and Democratic Secretary of State Rose Mofford is acting governor. No U.S. governor has been impeached and convicted since 1929.

Mecham, relaxed and almost jovial during examination by his attorney — and former staff member — Fred Craft, was much more combative during cross- examination by Eckstein.

He frequently told Eckstein that he was unable to recall specific incidents. And when the governor, defending his integrity, said he had never been accused of anything worse than traffic violations, Eckstein drew angry responses from Mecham by introducing fraud suits lost by Mecham as a Pontiac dealer.

“I’ve done over 100,000 business transactions, and somebody through a business transaction will accuse you of something.  . . .  I was talking in context of my personal life,” Mecham said.

During his testimony, Mecham acknowledged that he had told state police chief Ralph Milstead not to help the attorney general in a probe of the alleged death threat, but he said he “couldn’t conceive that it could be construed as breaking a law.” He said he considered the matter as simply a spat between two employees that was being properly handled internally.

Mecham was more concerned, he said, about how the incident would be portrayed in the press, which he felt had been routinely hostile to him. He said he was convinced that Milstead and Attorney General Robert Corbin were allied against him and were passing damaging information on to the Arizona Republic, the state’s dominant newspaper.

THE OBSTRUCTION CASE

The charge of interfering with a witness grew out of a threat allegedly made by prison-construction chief Lee Watkins against the governor’s legislative liaison, Donna Carlson. Carlson was about to testify before a grand jury investigating the unreported $350,000 loan to Mecham’s election campaign, and Watkins reportedly told one of Carlson’s friends to caution her to be quiet or she could take a “long boat ride” from which she might not return.

Mecham said the remark had been blown out of proportion by the state police, the attorney general and his political enemies in an effort to get him out of office.

“Two somewhat excitable people had a verbal exchange, and . . .  there were those who determined that they would make something out of it and manufactured an incident out of something that wasn’t there,” Mecham said.

“It’s a totally manufactured thing. It’s a disservice to me, a disservice to those people and a disservice to the state, certainly a disservice to the taxpayers to spend all this time where there isn’t a piece of evidence that I had any intention at all to obstruct any kind of justice.

“If I had have had any idea … that anybody was in danger, I’d have been the first one there to see that it was taken care of.

“This is the biggest miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Mecham is expected to finish testifying today, and then the senators must decide whether to vote immediately on the first charge against him or whether to hear all three charges before voting. If 20 of the 30 senators in the Republican-controlled Senate vote to convict, Mecham would be removed from office.

Mecham was impeached by the state House on a 46-14 vote Feb. 5. He still faces a criminal trial March 22 on the unreported campaign loan and a recall election on May 17. More than 100 people have filed as potential opponents to Mecham.

Caretaker governor Mofford joined the field of potential opponents yesterday, as supporters filed more than 15,000 signatures on petitions to draft her as a candidate.