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Mecham Wins Dispute Over Plan to Quiz Him : Impeachment Panel Agrees to Change Rules; Will Exclude Its Attorneys From Questioning

February 02, 1988|RON HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Gov. Evan Mecham won a showdown with the Arizona House on Monday, forcing its impeachment committee to change its procedures and exclude its attorneys from asking him what were expected to be more probing questions about possible malfeasance.

Mecham, already facing criminal charges and a May 17 recall election, stunned committee and House members when he said he would answer their questions but not those of William French and Paul Eckstein, attorneys retained by the House to explore allegations of fraud, perjury, improper use of public funds and obstruction of justice.

"I think it is unfair and in violation of my constitutional rights to have two attorneys cross-examine me without permitting my counsel to make any objections," Mecham told the panel.

Stands His Ground

Committee Chairman Jim Skelly (R-Scottsdale) warned the governor that his refusal to follow the rules was a constitutional violation, but Mecham stood his ground.

"If we want to continue this, we should probably go to the mat and find out legally," he said.

Skelly responded by telling Mecham that he was adjourning the hearings "until such time as you decide that you will comply with our rules."

After hastily called caucuses, Republican and Democratic members acquiesced to the governor's demands.

Under the new procedure, the counsels waived their right to ask questions, but they are expected to feed those questions to House members when Mecham returns for scheduled questioning by House members Wednesday morning.

Under normal procedures, witnesses before the panel have been questioned by the House counsels and then queried by impeachment committee members.

'A Group of Kids'

But House members, many of them critical of Skelly's handling of the matter, acceded to the governor's demand because, they said, it was more important to hear the governor's testimony than to follow procedure and "be perceived as a group of kids who couldn't get their rules together."

"We believe that the House rules should be honored," said House Minority Leader Art Hamilton (D-Phoenix), "but we believe there may be a higher goal here; that is to get to the truth and to satisfy every Arizonan that we have done that.

"We think the public ought not see the spectacle of the governor sitting there asking for the opportunity to answer questions and the House members refusing to ask those questions. The governor basically laid down a challenge that went unanswered."

The governor's attorney, Murray Miller, said: "We're quite pleased" with the House's decision to change its procedures.

'Wanted Fairness'

"The governor intends to fully comply with the committee," Miller said. "I don't think there's a winner or a loser in this situation. I think the governor simply wanted fairness."

Miller pointed out that Eckstein was a chief fund-raiser for the governor's Democratic opponent in the last election and that French had signed a recall petition against Mecham.

Skelly, "angry" and "resentful" about the governor's actions, said Mecham's refusal to take questions from House attorneys casts questions about how forthright he will be in his testimony.

"We keep hearing that the governor is ready to answer all questions openly, that he wants sunshine on these proceedings," Skelly said. "Now at the eleventh hour, he decides that he is not going to play by the rules that every other witness had to play by.

Lack Qualifications

"We have professional counsel for the purpose of questioning the governor, and they are trained individuals. Legislators obviously do not have those qualifications."

In a nearly 30-minute opening statement before the 10-member panel, Mecham defended himself against charges of obstruction of justice, improper use of public funds and attempting to hide a $350,000 campaign loan.

The governor was indicted Jan. 8 on six felony counts of perjury, fraud and false filing in connection with the campaign loan from Tempe developer Barry Wolfson.

Prosecutors contend the governor failed to claim the loan on a 1986 campaign disclosure statement and again on a 1987 personal financial disclosure statement.

$15,000 Contribution

The Republican governor said there was no attempt to disguise the Wolfson loan and noted that Wolfson's name appeared elsewhere in financial reports in connection with a $15,000 contribution he made.

"We ask, where's the secrecy?" Mecham said.

The impeachment committee also charges that he transferred $80,000 in public funds from a so-called "protocol fund" to his auto dealership.

Mecham told the committee Monday that the funds were not public but were collected during a fund-raiser for his personal use. He said he transferred the money to his dealership so the funds would get a higher interest rate.

As to the obstruction of justice charges, Mecham in his statement did not respond to whether he told the director of the Department of Public Services not to cooperate with an attorney general's investigation into a death threat made by a member of his staff.

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