February 27, 1988
By LAURIE ASSEO
PHOENIX, Ariz. — Gov. Evan Mecham’s new impeachment defense lawyer, Jerris Leonard, says he’s used to representing controversial clients – and this time around he has had only a week to prepare.
Leonard, a Washington attorney and former head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, joined Mecham’s defense team Monday, a week before the embattled Republican governor’s scheduled Senate trial.
Leonard suddenly became the lead attorney in the case Thursday when Mecham’s original lawyer, Murray Miller, turned in his resignation.
Leonard took the Mecham job at a price – his job in the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney & Evan. Charles Manatt, a senior partner in the firm and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Leonard was told the firm did not want to represent Mecham, and Leonard resigned.
“I just don’t think lawyers should be inhibited from taking cases because of the politics of them,” Leonard said Friday. “The history of my practice has been to represent controversial matters.”
“If he (Mecham) feels he wants me, he should be entitled to have the lawyer of his choice,” he said.
“At the moment we’re under tremendous pressure” to prepare the case by Monday, Leonard said.
The attorney has been relatively close-mouthed since arriving in Phoenix early in the week. When he confirmed Tuesday that he had been hired, he said he was enthusiastic in taking on the governor’s case and promised to present a strong defense.
Leonard, a former Wisconsin Senate majority leader, headed the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and the LEAA under President Nixon.
One of his first clients was Howard “Bo” Calloway, chairman of President Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign, who was accused of pressuring the U.S. Forest Service to speed up an environmental impact statement on a ski area in which he held an interest. Calloway was acquitted.
During those hearings, Leonard became friends with Fred Craft, then an Interior Department staff lawyer and now a close friend of Mecham’s. Craft was Mecham’s Washington lobbyist, hired over the state Legislature’s objections, and he brought Leonard into the governor’s case.
Leonard also represented retired boxer Muhammad Ali in a $50 million lawsuit against the government over Ali’s 1967 draft-evasion prosecution.
Another Leonard client was underworld figure Allen Dorfman, who was executed gangland-style in 1983 just before he was to start serving a prison term for receiving kickbacks.
Leonard himself was accused by the federal government of engaging in an illegal pyramid-type scheme to sell vitamins through a company he headed, United Sciences of America. The company agreed in an October settlement to pay $105,000 in civil penalties and $35,000 in attorneys’ fees.
Some Arizona lawmakers said they were impressed with Leonard’s first argument before the Senate on Wednesday, when he requested a delay in the impeachment trial.
Leonard referred to his years as a Wisconsin legislator and warned senators they must think about protecting their own dignity. “Don’t make a mockery out of this trial,” he said in arguing that he and Mecham’s other lawyers needed more time to prepare.
Assistant Senate Minority Leader Lela Alston, a Democrat, said she thought Leonard was effective.
“I’m sure he’ll get up to speed quickly,” predicted Minority Leader Alan Stephens.
Leonard has not said why few people – and not even Miller – were informed that another lawyer might be brought in until after he was hired. But he insisted Tuesday, “We’re not trying to hide anything.”
Leonard said he believes Mecham has a strong case.
“If I thought that he had no opportunity to prevail and be vindicated I’d say, ‘Governor, why go through it? Resign,”‘ he said.