Jury clears Mecham and brother on criminal charges of concealing loan

June 17, 1988

By LAURIE ASSEO
Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Former Gov. Evan Mecham says his acquittal on charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan shows “justice can occur in Arizona” when the politicians who removed him from office are not involved.

A state jury on Thursday cleared Mecham and his brother, Willard, on all counts.

“Justice in the political arena will take a little longer,” Mecham said today. He pledged to push for “a measurable effect” in elections for the state Legislature this fall, and also to press for a new state attorney general.

“We don’t have any vindictive feelings,” Mecham said at the outset of a news conference, adding that “I see much need for true reforms” in the judiciary in Arizona, including barring selective prosecution so justice is even-handed.

As for himself, he said, “today is not the day to discuss my political future.” He said his legal bills so far total about $500,000, that donations total about half of that amount, and that he was reactivating the Mecham Legal Defense Fund.

The first-term Republican became the first U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office in 59 years on April 4 when the Arizona Senate convicted him on two unrelated impeachment counts.

The House impeached him in connection with the $350,000 loan to his 1986 campaign, but the Senate decided not to hear that charge for fear of prejudicing his criminal trial.

Willard Mecham, also at the news conference today, said: “There were two dark days in the history of Arizona in 1988. The first was the day we were indicted, and the second was the day Evan was impeached.”

Being indicted unjustly was “the most evil experience I have ever had in my life,” he added.

“Justice can occur in Arizona when you get to the people and outside the politicians,” Mecham, 64, told reporters outside the Maricopa County courthouse Thursday. “We’re happy, we’re happy. You’re always apprehensive but not really surprised.”

Assistant Attorney General Barnett Lotstein, one of two prosecutors in the case, said he had “no quarrel with the decision.”

“We believe we presented a responsible case that had to be presented. We obviously felt we had a good case. A lot of the people in this community feel that he has suffered enough, and perhaps that was a factor,” Lotstein said outside the courtroom.

As the verdict was read, Mecham smiled broadly and embraced his attorney, Michael Scott, hugged his wife, Florence, then walked over to the jurors and shook their hands.

“Winning this is better news than winning the election, because if he lost the election he wouldn’t have gone to jail,” Mrs. Mecham said later Thursday.

“It’s been terrible listening to people call your husband a liar,” she said. “He has never told a lie a day in his life, but sometimes it seems you can’t convince some people of that.”

As Superior Court Judge Michael Ryan declared the trial over, Mecham’s supporters cheered. Scott asked Ryan whether Mecham could make a statement, but the judge refused, saying, “This is a court of law, Mr. Scott.”

Mecham acknowledged he did not itemize the loan from developer and lawyer Barry Wolfson on personal or campaign financial statements required by the state. The defense called the failure an innocent mistake, partly due to Willard Mecham’s inexperience as a bookkeeper.

However, the prosecution insisted that Mecham badly needed the loan to keep his campaign afloat, then hid it to avoid spoiling his theme of being “beholden to no one.”

The jury deliberated 6-1/2 hours Wednesday and Thursday after hearing seven days of testimony and two days of closing arguments.

Mecham could have been sentenced to 22 years in prison if convicted on all six felony counts of perjury, willful concealment and filing false documents. His 67-year-old brother, who was his 1986 campaign treasurer, faced a maximum 9-1/2 years on three similar counts.

Gov. Rose Mofford, the Democratic secretary of state who took over after Mecham’s removal, said in a statement that she hoped her predecessor “and his entire family can resume their lives as private citizens.”

“The end of this trial signals a hastening of a healing process which has begun and that the citizens of this great state so richly deserve,” she said.

State Attorney General Bob Corbin, whose office prosecuted the case, said he had offered to let Mecham plead guilty to a misdemeanor before the trial began, but Mecham rejected the offer.

Corbin said he felt the case had been proven “well beyond” a reasonable doubt.

Lotstein said the main issue was whether the Mechams intended to break the law when they filed the disclosure forms.

“The word ‘knowingly’ is what swayed most of us,” said juror Anthony Christie of Phoenix. “We did not think he knew he was doing anything wrong. … Those were innocent mistakes.”

Mecham, a former auto dealer, ran for governor four times unsuccessfully before winning a three-way race in November 1986.

He sparked controversy just one week after taking office in January 1987 when he canceled a Martin Luther King holiday for state workers, saying it was created illegally.

Mecham later made remarks that angered blacks, women, Jews, homosexuals and Japanese-Americans. He was also accused of making a series of substandard appointments to top state positions.