February 29, 1988
The Prescott Courier
PHOENIX (AP) — The Senate today opened Gov. Evan Mecham’s historic impeachment trial to decide if the first-term Republican governor should be removed from office.
The trial convened at 9:27 a.m. MST. First on the agenda before any actual testimony was a series of motions, including one to throw out the impeachment charges altogether.
“The Senate trial of Evan Mecham does not concern merely this one officeholder, but instead addresses the very essence of democracy in our state constitution,” Senate Minority Leader Alan Stephens, A Democrat, said in a floor speech shortly before the court convened. “We are really testing our form of government. Will we stand up and do our duty amid calls from the public to intimidate us?”
Senate leaders say they’ll take up to two months to hear testimony and arguments before deciding whether the governor should be removed and possibly barred from holding elective office.
Mecham, 63, also faces a March 22 criminal trial on six felony charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan, and a May 17 recall election.
He maintains he’ll be acquitted in both trials, win the recall election and return to the office he gave up to Democratic Secretary of State Rose Mofford after he was impeached Feb. 5 on a 46-14 House vote.
At a news conference Saturday, Mecham said winning acquittal in criminal court is more important than persuading the Senate to keep him in office.
“I could have my freedom taken away and be sent to jail if I were guilty (in criminal court). Doesn’t that somehow seem to you a little more important than the job as governor? It does to me,” Mecham said.
The state Supreme Court on Friday refused an emergency request by Mecham to intervene and delay the Senate trial until after the criminal trial. The court planned to discuss Tuesday whether to grant an injunction, although several justices already have said they believe the court lacks jurisdiction.
Mecham said he planned to take the issue to federal court. A new attorney hired by Mecham last week, Thomas Crowe, said he would decide by Wednesday where the appeal would be filed.
The governor claims the impeachment trial threatens his right to a fair criminal trial because the Senate proceedings will not be bound by the same rules of evidence as a criminal court but will be widely publicized to prospective jurors.
“As governor of this state, I ask nothing more than what is accorded to every garden variety criminal,” he said. “Is this a star chamber or will we proceed under the time-tested constitutional mandate that I be afforded all of my basic constitutional rights?”
The House has leveled 23 charges against Mecham accusing him of concealing the $350,000 loan, misusing $80,000 from the governor’s protocol fund by lending it to his auto dealership and trying to thwart an investigation of an alleged death threat by a state official against a witness before the grand jury that investigated Mecham.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Usdane said the Senate has decided to hear testimony on all charges even if it appears there could be a vote to convict him on the charges heard.
Prosecutor Paul Eckstein said he and co-counsel William French planned to begin with testimony on the allegation that Mecham ordered Department of Public Safety Director Ralph Milstead not to cooperate with a probe of the alleged death threat against former Mecham aide Donna Carlson, who testified before the state grand jury investigating Mecham.
State official Lee Watkins, who has since resigned, has denied making the threat.
Before testimony begins, the Senate must rule on a raft of motions filed last week, including requests that the state pay Mecham’s attorney’s fees, a motion to allow his original lawyer, Murray Miller, to withdraw from the case, and a challenge asking the Senate to dismiss the charges against him altogether.
Miller quit the Mecham defense team on Thursday after the governor hired Jerris Leonard, a Washington D.C. attorney, and Leonard told Miller he was taking over as lead counsel. Miller told reporters Leonard had admitted to him earlier in the week that he was unprepared to handle the case and that to attempt to do so would be “malpractice.”
However, Mecham said he was confident his attorneys could “drink enough coffee” and get prepared over the weekend.
Two-thirds of the 30 Senate votes are required to convict Mecham, who is the first U.S. governor in 50 years to be impeached. Of the 16 governors in the nation’s history to be impeached, seven have been convicted.
Mecham, who was never considered part of the state’s Republican establishment, won the governorship in a three-way race in 1986 on his fifth try.
He immediately became embroiled in controversy when he canceled a Martin Luther King holiday for state works, saying it was illegally declared by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt.
Mecham has been criticized for defending the use of the word “pickaninny” in a book and for making remarks that angered women, Jews, homosexuals and the Japanese.