Arizona In Chaos As Governor Fights For His Political Life

January 24, 1988

By Charlotte-Anne Lucas
The Orlando Sentinel

PHOENIX, ARIZ. — The sign on Republican House Speaker Joe Lane’s office here almost seems like an understatement: “Caution, crisis in progress.”

Two weeks ago Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham was indicted.

One week ago, as Arizonans saw their governor’s jail mug shot on the front page of local newspapers, a House special counsel hired by Lane to investigate the governor said there are grounds for Mecham’s impeachment. Included in those grounds: charges of obstruction of justice, the governor’s attempt to hide a campaign contribution and the improper use of state funds.

On Friday the governor pleaded not guilty in Superior Court to indictments charging that he lied about campaign contributions. Mecham entered his plea before one of the few judges in the county who hadn’t signed a petition calling for the governor’s removal.

Monday the secretary of state is expected to confirm that there are enough petition signatures to force Mecham into a recall election, and in the next few weeks, the House is expected to vote to impeach him.

Everything legally and politically possible is being done to remove Arizona’s governor from office. He faces a triple threat unprecedented by any governor in U.S. history: indictment, impeachment and recall.

And yet, Mecham, a devout Mormon who reportedly told aides he “gets his advice from a higher authority,” is following a pattern set over the past year. He’s not backing down.

Three times last week he called in to radio talk shows to debate the host and guests who wanted the governor to leave office — if not town. And he continued to reiterate his position: “Resignation is not an option.”

Political leaders in both parties have worried aloud that Mecham has made the Grand Canyon State a joke across the nation and the world. And now they say he is crippling Arizona at home.

“The state is partially paralyzed,” said Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain. “It is deeply divided.”

McCain, a onetime Vietnam prisoner of war, inherited the conservative mantle and seat of former U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who also has asked Mecham to resign.

Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Rep. Jay Rhodes said the report by impeachment investigator William French “brings us to a climax — gives us an opportunity now to say to the governor, ‘Spare us from the rest of this. Do as President Nixon did and let us get about the business of our state as President Nixon did with the business of our country.’ ”

French’s report was more damning that even the governor’s critics had expected.

Mecham “intentionally covered up” a $350,000 loan — that represented a third of his 1986 campaign funds — by funneling it through a secret bank account and “manufacturing” false documents, French told the Arizona House. French also charged that Mecham’s car dealership illegally borrowed $80,000 from the governor’s “protocol” account. French said the account was supposed to be only for state promotions. The report said that after Mecham received the $80,000 he paid $20,000 for real estate in Washington.

The governor also obstructed justice, French charged in the report, when he tried to block the attorney general’s investigation into a death threat made by one staffer against another who was a grand jury witness.

The prosecutor characterized the evidence as a “smoking gun.”

His report left legislators sobered, and it drained the fire from Mecham’s normally vocal right-wing supporters. Then the calls for Mecham’s resignation escalated.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Skelly termed French’s findings “extremely, extremely damaging,” while Lane, also a Republican, called on Mecham to “do some very serious soul-searching.”

But the governor is hardly sitting at home mulling over his political future. Instead, Mecham’s defense attorney, Murray Miller, has come up slinging.

To demonstrate his respect for the “smoking gun” remark, Miller pulled out a Derringer at a press conference last week. When he squeezed the trigger, a flag popped out that said “BANG.”

Miller’s theatrics had no effect on the House of Representatives, which Tuesday created a select committee to inquire into French’s findings and begin the impeachment process. The governor is expected to testify before the committee this week.

When the inquiry ends, the 60 House members will vote on whether or not to draw up articles of impeachment.

If at least 31 representatives approve the impeachment, the matter will be turned over to the Arizona Senate, which will hold impeachment hearings similar to a trial. Although Mecham is expected to challenge it, the state constitution requires that the governor step down if the House votes to impeach, and that Arizona Secretary of State Rose Moffard, a Democrat, assume his duties during the Senate trial. If the Senate vindicates Mecham, he would be reinstated. If the Senate convicts him, it could go further and bar him from any political office in the future.

Moffard is expected to announce Monday that enough signatures of registered voters have been collected to force a recall election. Mecham will have five days to resign or announce he will run in the recall, which likely will take place in late spring. In a recall election, a simple plurality of voters decide whether or not to kick the governor out of office.

In a state where controversy has become the norm in the last year, these recent events have shoved Arizona to the fringes of chaos.

Incidents such as an arson fire in French’s offices Jan. 8, and a threatening letter sent to several anti-Mecham legislators a week later have prompted some officials — including the attorney general and members of the House impeachment committee — to request bodyguards. Others have demanded just a return to calm.

“I understand there is chaos at various agencies,” said Democratic state Sen. Carolyn Walker, who said she has received worried calls from state employees who are feeling the ripple effects of the state’s political uncertainty.

The mood in the state capital is grim and fearful. And Arizonans aren’t shaking their heads or laughing anymore at the governor’s controversy of the week. Now the sentiment is that Mecham must leave soon so Arizona can get on with its business.

In calling for the governor’s resignation, Republican U.S. Rep. Jon Kyl said it is impossible for Mecham to run the state while fighting his legal battles. Other Republicans want Mecham out fast so he does not become an issue in the fall’s legislative contests. But the governor insists that state government will continue to operate despite his difficulties.

“I assure you that the state government is functioning and is functioning well,” Mecham said in his State of the State address three days after his indictment. “My present difficulties will not interfere in any way with the operation of the executive branch.”

Mecham’s backers contend that he is the victim of a vendetta by the state’s political power structure after defeating the GOP Senate majority leader in the 1986 primary. Others say Mecham is the victim of the media.

The governor repeatedly has accused Arizona Attorney General Bob Corbin of being a “political opportunist” and of engaging in an “unbridled and flagrant abuse of the secret grand jury hearing.” Mecham has charged that Corbin really wants to be governor. Wednesday, Mecham said that The Arizona Republic and the attorney general are bugging his office by shooting lasers through the windows.

But his supporters are dwindling fast. As many as 65 percent of voters think he should quit, according to a recent poll. And even those closest to the governor are falling away.

Prison construction chief Lee Watkins, a Mecham appointee, resigned Jan. 13 after revelations he had not disclosed criminal convictions for assault and robbery on a 1984 insurance license application.

Watkins also is under investigation by a state grand jury for allegations that he threatened the life of a former Mecham aide who has testified before another state grand jury. The French report claims Watkins said the aide was “talking too much” and would “be going on a long boat ride and may never come back.” Watkins’ boss said last week the comments were not a threat, just “good advice.”