January 21, 1988
By ROBERT LINDSEY
New York Times
A committee of the Arizona House of Representatives opened hearings tonight to consider the impeachment of Governor Evan Mecham.
The first witness, Col. Ralph Milstead, Director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, testified that Mr. Mecham, the first-term Republican Governor, had ordered him not to reveal to the state Attorney General’s Office that a key associate of the Governor had made a death threat against a fellow member of the Mecham staff.
Colonel Milstead, whose agency serves as Arizona’s state police, quoted the Governor as saying that he had already looked into the threats, and “there’s nothing to it.” He also quoted the Governor as saying: “The Attorney General is out to hang me, and I’m not going to help him in any way.”
Colonel Milstead, who appeared before the 10-member committee in his police uniform, said he believed the order was unlawful and decided to tell Attorney General Bob Corbin about the purported death threat, as well as Mr. Mecham’s directive to keep it a secret. “It was the first time I had ever disobeyed” an order from the Governor, who he said “is my boss.”
Decision Possible This Week
Earlier today, Joe Lane, the Speaker of the House, said that he expected the committee to decide by the end of this week whether it will recommend impeachment of Mr. Mecham to the full 60-member House of Representatives.
In addition to the alleged death threat, the committee is evaluating allegations that Mr. Mecham violated state campaign financing laws; diverted $80,000 from a state fund intended for official entertaining by his office to his Pontiac automobile dealership, and that he pressed members of his staff to refuse to cooperate with Attorney General Corbin during an investigation of the Governor’s office.
The death threat was allegedly made Nov. 12, 1987, by Lee Watkins, who resigned recently as Mr. Mecham’s Director of Prison Construction, against Donna Carlson, a former legislative aide to the Governor. According to witnesses quoted by Colonel Milstead, Mr. Watkins told Ms. Carlson that she should not cooperate with investigators from the Attorney General’s Office who were making inquiries into the Governor’s activities, and, among other things, said if she did, she might “go on a long boat ride.” Ms. Carlson was considered a prospective witness at the time before a state grand jury investigating the Governor.
Colonel Milstead, in response to a question, said he had not tape-recorded the telephone conversation with the Governor about the alleged death threat, nor did he have other corroboration, but that his depiction of events was truthful.
On Friday, a special prosecutor retained by the House of Representatives, William French, told legislators that he had found evidence proving Mr. Mecham had consciously sought to conceal the loan, referring to one set of documents as a “smoking gun” proving an effort to “cover up” the loan.
The opening of the impeachment hearings today are expected to bring new pressure on the 63-year-old Mr. Mecham to resign. But, through a spokesman, the Governor said this afternoon that he expected to appear before members of the House and to prove that he has done nothing inappropriate to warrant impeachment. In a brief encounter with reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Mecham criticized a number of state Republican leaders who asked him to resign.
“I’ll get myself cleared of these accusations,” he said, “and I’ll be in good shape. But they’re going to have to live with what they’ve done the rest of their lives, so that’s their problem, not mine.”
Another Threat of Ouster
In addition to the possibility of impeachment and the criminal charges, Mr. Mecham faces a third threat: State officials have informally determined that enough signatures have been collected on petitions circulated by critics of the Governor in recent months to force Mr. Mecham into a recall election. Such a vote is expected to be called later this week or early next week for May 17.
If the House committee recommends impeachment and a majority of the full House votes articles of impeachment, Mr. Mecham would have to leave his office, and his duties would be taken over by Rose P. Mofford, the Secretary of State, while he faced a trial on the allegation before the 30-member State Senate. If a majority of the Senate voted for impeaching Mr. Mecham, he would be removed from office. Both of the legislative houses are controlled by Republicans, who have been badly split over the mounting debate in Arizona over whether Mr. Mecham should be ousted.
In the past week, several organizations, maintaining that critics of the Governor have formed a “lynch mob,” have begun a counteroffensive on his behalf. In some instances, Republican legislators have received letters promising to seek their defeat if they vote in favor of impeachment.
Mr. Mecham, who had run for Governor five times before being elected in 1986, is the nation’s first Governor to face impeachment proceedings since Governor Bill Sheffied of Alaska in 1985. At that time, members of the Alaska Senate voted 12 to 8 against impeachment of Mr. Sheffield after investigating allegations of improprieties in the awarding of a $9 million state building contract. If the Alaska Senate had favored impeachment, he would have been tried on the charges by the State House of Representatives.
In all, 15 other Governors have faced formal impeachment charges in the nation’s history. Six were convicted of charges brought against them and removed from office; four were acquitted; and the remaining five either resigned or otherwise left office before the impeachment proceedings were consummated.
Although Mr. Lane said he was hopeful the committee hearing could be completed this week, Representative Jim Skelly, a Republican who heads the panel, said the hearings could extend into next week.
“These are very serious charges,” Mr. Skelly said.