Mecham Sorry He Did Not Fire Chief Accuser

March 19, 1988

By TAMARA JONES
Los Angels Times

PHOENIX — Gov. Evan Mecham lamented Friday in testimony at his impeachment trial that he had not fired his chief accuser.

The 63-year-old governor has mounted a defense that portrays himself as the victim of a staff “mutiny” masterminded by two political foes — Col. Ralph Milstead, head of the state’s Department of Public Safety, and state Atty. Gen. Bob Corbin.

Mecham said on the stand Friday as the defense rested that he had cause to fire Milstead “and wish now I had,” but that he did not do so for political reasons.

The governor sought to discredit Milstead by charging that he illegally used state vehicles and made a state-paid secretary type his master’s thesis. Milstead, who was out of the country this week, was unavailable for comment.

Insists He Broke No Law

Refraining from the outbursts and shouting matches that punctuated his earlier testimony, Mecham continued to insist that he had broken no law.

“As God is my witness today . . . had I broken a law that was really breaking the law, you wouldn’t see me here,” he told the 30-member Senate, which is sitting as judge and jury in the political trial.

“I would, in one stroke of my pen, have resigned from my office and gone back to private life,” the first-term Republican asserted during his third day of answering often hostile questioning.

The first of three broad impeachment articles being considered involve obstruction of justice. Mecham is accused of ordering Milstead not to cooperate with an attorney general’s investigation of an alleged death threat by an aide and key campaign fund-raiser.

Mecham admitted that he did not give his “permission” for Milstead to turn the matter over to the attorney general but said he was not informed that a death threat or potential felony was involved. He said he never had tried to hamper the probe.

Tell of Informing Mecham

Safety department witnesses have testified that Mecham was fully informed of the alleged threat by his head of prison construction, former inmate Lee Watkins.

Watkins allegedly told another aide that former Mecham staffer Donna Carlson would “go on a long boat ride and end up missing” if she did not “keep her mouth shut” about purported wrongdoing in the Mecham administration.

Carlson at the time was appearing before a grand jury investigating Mecham’s campaign finances.

But Mecham testified that he “knew nothing of a death threat” and still considers the matter a harmless spat between two “excitable” staff members.

Mecham also accused the former head of his security detail, Lt. Beau Johnson, of leaking information from the governor’s office to his safety department superiors.

Mecham claimed that an “informant in DPS” saw Johnson deliver a document stolen from the governor’s office to the safety department. He initially refused to identify the informant but later backpedaled and admitted that it was Watkins.

Draws Gasps, Applause

During rebuttal, prosecutor William French drew gasps, applause and laughter from the spectators’ gallery when he elicited testimony from a defense witness that Watkins himself had taken the document to the agency.

Lt. Col. Gary Phelps testified under questioning by French that Watkins “hand-delivered” the document suggesting the safety department reorganization and later asked that the copy be returned or shredded.

The governor has blamed leaks from his ninth-floor Capitol offices for much of his political and legal troubles.

Both sides say that Watkins, who took the Fifth Amendment when called to testify last week, arranged a $350,000 campaign loan Mecham is accused of concealing. Concealment of that loan and alleged misappropriation of $80,000 from the governor’s protocol fund make up the rest of the impeachment charges pending.

The loan also is the focus of a six-count felony indictment against Mecham, who faces a criminal trial April 21. In addition, he faces a recall election May 17.

Six File Petitions

As Friday’s deadline passed, only six of the 136 people who took out papers to run in the nonpartisan election had filed the necessary petitions with the secretary of state’s office.

If convicted by a two-thirds’ majority of the Senate, Mecham would be removed from office and possibly barred from seeking office again in Arizona.

A conviction in criminal court could bring the governor up to 22 years in prison.

Since his Feb. 5 impeachment by the Arizona House — the political equivalent of an indictment — Mecham has been suspended from office. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, has been acting governor and is a candidate in the recall election.