PHOENIX, JAN. 15 -- A second legal sledgehammer dropped on Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham today as a legislative special counsel told the state House of Representatives that evidence supports his impeachment on three charges.
The toughly worded report, coming one week after Mecham was indicted on charges of violating campaign-finance laws, increased the likelihood that the conservative Republican governor will find himself out of a job in the next few months.
Mecham has spent his entire political life battling the establishment, and today he launched new legal and political efforts to stave off his accusers. Political observers here said there is a chance, but not a strong one, that he could stay in office.
To do that, the former auto dealer must survive the triple threat facing him between now and late spring: the state indictments, the possibility of impeachment and a recall election likely to be held May 17.
And he would have to resist the pleading of some top Republican officials who are pushing him to step down to avoid the coming confrontations.
The special counsel's charges against Mecham involve an unreported $350,000 loan, a "protocol" bank account and an alleged threat by one of the governor's senior aides.
Today's installment of the Mecham saga took place in the House chamber next to the copper-domed Capitol. Special counsel William French, a Phoenix lawyer, reported that he has found evidence indicating financial chicanery on the governor's part, followed by a "coverup" and an effort by Mecham "to impede a legal investigation" of a top gubernatorial aide.
Mecham's lawyer, Murray Miller, was refused the right to appear before the legislature and respond to the report. In a news conference, Miller denied the charges and challenged the objectivity of the special counsel. Miller noted that French was removed from the state racing commission by Mecham last year and that he had signed a petition calling for Mecham's recall before he undertook the investigation.
French's report today was not a formal bill of impeachment. The House will begin deliberations next week on whether the governor should be impeached. But the report the members heard today amounted to a clear call for impeachment.
French's first count against Mecham involves a $350,000 loan Mecham obtained during his tight 1986 election battle. Mecham failed to report the loan, as state law requires. This transaction led to the governor's indictment last week on six charges, including fraud and perjury. French charged today that Mecham "knowingly and deliberately" violated the campaign disclosure law, and then staged a careful "coverup" to conceal what he had done.
Mecham admits that he failed to report the loan but says this was a technical violation at most. He argues, and state records confirm, that other officials, including some current legislators, have violated the disclosure law but have not been indicted. None of those cases involves a sum as large as the $350,000 loan in the Mecham case.
French's second charge of illegal conduct deals with a protocol bank account, funded by private donations, that Mecham maintained for social functions while in office. The governor loaned $80,000 from this account to his former business, Mecham Pontiac, last summer; the loan was repaid in full.
French charged today that this loan was an illegal use of state funds for private purposes. Mecham argues that the fund has traditionally been considered the governor's private money.
Finally, French reminded the legislators of an incident last year when one of Mecham's senior aides, Lee Watkins, allegedly threatened to kill a coworker in the governor's office. A state police lieutenant assigned to the governor's office reported this threat to his superiors.
Thereafter, French charged, Mecham tried to prevent the police from reporting the case to the state attorney general.
Coincidentally, the gubernatorial aide who alledgedly made the death threat resigned under fire today from his job in the state prison system. It was recently reported that Watkins had failed to reveal a pair of criminal convictions, dating back more than 20 years, when he was sworn into his state job.
Mecham, a fighter by nature, has responded to most of his critics with at least equal fervor. But today he adopted -- temporarily, at least -- a new tack, issuing a public apology and asking the state for "forgiveness." In the three-page public letter, Mecham also concedes that he "made a mistake" last year when he refused to authorize a state holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. It was that flap that launched Mecham into the battles and controversies that marked his first year in office.
As Mecham battled today against the increasing likelihood that he will be forced out of office, community leaders were preparing for a huge downtown march and rally to mark King's birthday, state holiday or not.