Arizona Jurors Acquit Mecham of Hiding Loan

June 17, 1988

By RON HARRIS
Los Angeles| Times

PHOENIX — Amid cheers and applause from supporters, former Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham and his brother, Willard, were found not guilty Thursday of fraud and perjury charges in connection with allegations that they hid a huge campaign loan during Mecham’s gubernatorial race.

The verdict was at least partial vindication for the feisty Mecham, who was impeached and removed from office on two unrelated counts on April 4.

Mecham, dressed in a tan suit, yellow shirt and burgundy tie, appeared flushed as he leaned across the rail separating him from the first row of spectators and kissed his tearful wife after the final verdict on the last count was read.

Hugs 8 Jurors

The 64-year-old conservative Republican then rushed over to shake hands with and hug the six men and two women of the Maricopa County Superior Court jury, who had deliberated for just over 6 1/2 hours before reaching their verdict.

“I have said since October, 1987, (when the loan was first reported in the Arizona Republic newspaper) that there was no law that we had broken that we knew of,” Mecham told a throng of reporters. “We didn’t intend to, we didn’t mean to. It was a technicality and the jury agreed.”

The jury acquitted the former governor of six felony counts, carrying prison terms of up to nearly 22 years and Willard Mecham, treasurer of his 1986 gubernatorial campaign, of three counts punishable by up to 9-1/2 years in prison.

To celebrate the victory, Mecham said he was going to “go home and finish my day’s work.” He said he will hold a news conference today to discuss the verdict and his future. Mecham and his brother were accused of hiding a $350,000 campaign loan in 1985 from Tempe lawyer and developer Barry Wolfson on personal and campaign disclosure statements.

In a letter to Wolfson confirming the loan agreement, Mecham wrote that, as agreed, he would keep the loan “confidential.”

Assistant County Attys. Barnett Lotstein and Mike Cudahy maintained that Mecham and his brother deliberately hid the loan, nearly one-third of Mecham’s total campaign fund, to avoid publicity that would have severely damaged his gubernatorial bid.

During his campaign, Mecham had continuously lashed out at “special interest politics.” Lotstein and Cudahy said that if it had been reported that such a large share of Mecham’s campaign funds had come from one source, it would have jeopardized his campaign theme and damaged his fifth race for the governor’s office.

The prosecutors also noted that Wolfson was under investigation by the state at the time the loan was made, which also would have been damaging if reported.

Described as Mistake

The Mechams’ attorneys, Mike Scott and William Kelip, admitted that their clients had not correctly filled out the campaign disclosure forms, but they maintained that the failure to report the loan was purely a bookkeeping mistake. They said that it had been corrected on an amended form, and argued that many Arizona politicians had done the same thing over the years. Mecham and his attorneys asserted that the charges had been trumped up by Atty. Gen. Bob Corbin, also a Republican, because he disagreed with Mecham’s politics and wanted to drive the governor out of office.

Prosecutors noted that the loan was not corrected until it was reported by the Arizona Republic and that of the more than 1,500 campaign contribution listings, including one for $1, the Wolfson loan was the only one that was left off the campaign forms.

But Lotstein said Thursday that the jury had obviously agreed with the Mechams.

“We have no quarrel with the jury’s decision,” Lotstein said. “It’s obvious that the jury did not believe Evan and Willard Mecham intended to commit the acts that they committed.”

There may have been a sympathy factor for the former governor, he said.

“I think we all have to realize that Mr. Mecham was the governor of Arizona; that he was removed from office,” Lotstein said. “There probably are a lot of people in this community who believe that he has suffered enough.”

Ends Legal Problems

The not guilty verdict Thursday ended nearly two years of legal and political problems for Mecham, whose attainment of his longtime dream–the governorship–left his life largely in shambles.

It was just a little over two months ago that Mecham was governor of the state, an office he had pursued for 22 years before he was elected in 1986 with slightly under 40% of the vote in a three-person race.

The proud Mormon has been publicly humiliated through House impeachment hearings, the Senate trial, the criminal proceedings. A statewide effort to force a recall election to remove him from office easily gained enough signatures, but was set aside as unnecessary after his impeachment.

Mecham’s removal from office after his conviction by the state Senate on House impeachment charges of “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office,” came just 15 months after he assumed the governor’s office.

 

After a five-week trial, 30 senators voted by a more than two-thirds margin that Mecham had improperly loaned $80,000 in public funds to his Pontiac dealership to pay off personal debts and that he had tried to thwart an attorney general’s investigation into an alleged death threat made by one of Mecham’s appointees.

Dismisses 1 Charge

The Senate dismissed an impeachment charge of concealing the campaign loan to avoid running the risk of double jeopardy or prejudicing the jury in his criminal trial.

The former governor has also suffered financially. His once-lucrative Pontiac dealership slipped into debt as bad publicity drove prospective customers away, and was sold in late March. He is now faced with large legal costs.

Mecham’s problems started even before he took office when, as governor-elect, he announced that he would rescind a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday that had been approved by outgoing Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

From there, the downward spiral continued as Mecham alienated Asians, women, Latinos and blacks with disparaging remarks, and his antics and faux pas brought the state negative publicity and eventually earned him the dubious honor of becoming regular fodder for the nationally syndicated Doonesbury comic strip.