March 17, 1988
By Paul Nussbaum
PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham yesterday took the witness stand for the first time in an impeachment trial that has become about equal parts legal wrangling, political theater and lurid soap opera.
Sitting at the right hand of state Chief Justice Francis Gordon before the assembled state Senate, Mecham described his deepening distrust of the state’s two chief law enforcement officers – Attorney General Robert Corbin and Public Safety Director Ralph Milstead.
Testifying in a relaxed monotone, Mecham said he became convinced that Corbin, the state’s chief lawyer, was giving him bad legal advice and was harassing the administration with investigations of virtually every top aide to the governor.
And he said he seriously considered firing Milstead, contending that he misused state cars and secretarial services. But the governor said he was worried about the political fight that would create with Milstead’s friends in the legislature.
Milstead is one of the chief figures arrayed against the governor in the impeachment proceedings. Mecham is accused, in the first of three impeachment charges being considered, of trying to block an investigation into a death threat allegedly made by one gubernatorial aide against another.
The trial before the state Senate has increasingly become a battle between the conservative Republican governor and the politically well-connected director of public safety.
And when he took the stand yesterday, the exiled governor moved to center stage in a trial that has recently featured discussions of Milstead’s sex life and the arrest by the state police of one of Mecham’s defense witnesses the day after she testified.
A former public safety employee, Christina Johnston, who said she had had an affair with Milstead, lambasted him Tuesday as a vindictive person who had once told her he wanted to be governor.
She was on the stand only briefly, after defense lawyers had failed in efforts to introduce a deposition detailing her affair with Milstead. Gordon refused to admit the deposition as evidence, saying the details of Milstead’s sex life were irrelevant to the impeachment trial against Mecham.
One of Mecham’s defense witnesses, Terri Fields, was arrested by the state police the day after she testified on an outstanding warrant for failing to attend court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The governor’s lawyers contended that the arrest constituted witness-tampering and said the charges against the governor should be dismissed.
Yesterday, the Senate rejected by a voice vote a defense motion to dismiss the charges.
In his testimony yesterday, Mecham said he had made a mistake by trusting Milstead, Corbin and some of his own staffers.
“It was a trust misplaced,” he said. “But you can’t go through life mistrusting people.”
He said he had not tried to protect aide Lee Watkins, a convicted felon who allegedly threatened that another aide, about to testify before a grand jury, might “take a long boat ride and never come back” if she didn’t keep quiet.
Mecham defended his decision to hire Watkins, first as director of an anti- drug campaign and then as prison construction chief, because the man’s assault conviction was more than 20 years old. But he said he did not intervene on Watkins’ behalf to keep him on the staff.
The woman that Watkins allegedly threatened, legislative liaison Donna Carlson, was described yesterday by Mecham as an inept aide who secretly discussed with Milstead the governor’s preparation of a plan to fire the state police chief. Had he known of the discussions then, Mecham said he would have fired both Milstead and Carlson.