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Arizona House Votes 46-14 to Impeach Mecham : Governor Must Step Down From Office Pending a Trial by the State Senate

February 07, 1988|United Press International

PHOENIX — Gov. Evan Mecham, accused of financial improprieties and obstructing an investigation, was impeached Friday by the Arizona House of Representatives and forced to step down from office pending a trial by the Senate.

The resolution to impeach Mecham was adopted on a 46-14 vote by the 60-member, Republican-controlled, House, dealing Mecham the worst blow of a 13-month tenure characterized by charges that he is politically inept, that he is prejudiced against minorities, and that he had engaged in criminal conduct.

Only 31 votes were needed for impeachment.

The House spent a little more than an hour debating the resolution of impeachment before tentatively approving it 45-13. It took another hour for the House to take its formal, recorded vote.

Forced to Step Down

Under the Arizona Constitution, Mecham, the state's first Republican governor in 12 years, was forced to step down until he is tried by the Senate. Secretary of State Rose Mofford, a Democrat, automatically became acting governor.

Mecham is the first governor to be impeached since Arizona was granted statehood in 1912.

After adoption of the impeachment resolution, the House was to vote on the articles of impeachment, which will contain the actual charges against the governor. Those charges were not disclosed, but were expected to center on allegations that Mecham concealed a campaign loan, made an illegal loan to his car dealership, and tried to cover up a death threat by an aide.

The resolution of impeachment said the House investigation and hearings "revealed to the satisfaction of a majority of the members in this House that Gov. Evan Mecham has, by his conduct in office, committed high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance of office, and that the state of Arizona would be improved by the removal of Evan Mecham as governor of the state of Arizona."

4th Day of Testimony

Earlier in the day, Mecham completed his fourth day of testimony before a House Select Committee. He was reported to be in western Arizona for a speech while the House debated his fate.

During 13 hours of testimony last week, the governor, who faces a May 17 recall election and a March 9 trial date on six felony counts for not reporting a $350,000 campaign loan, denied the allegations.

Before voting for impeachment, the House killed an amendment by Rep. Karen Mills (R-Glendale), a Mecham supporter. The amendment would have allowed Mecham to retain his office unless convicted by the state Senate.

During the debate on the motion to impeach Mecham, Republican Rep. Lela Steffey charged that the proceedings were a "well-planned railroad job."

Conspiracy Denied

But Rep. Jim Skelly, chairman of the House Select Committee, denied that there was a conspiracy against Mecham.

"I think it's sad that people can think a conspiracy exists and that people sit around and plot against the governor," Skelly said.

House Speaker Joe Lane, who appointed the special counsel to investigate Mecham, also denied that the investigation was improperly handled.

"If people think there was a cover-up or any sceret things going on down here, that was hardly true," Lane said.

Critics Attacked

Earlier, a defiant Mecham attacked his critics as he told the Select Committee that legislators had already decided to impeach him before he ended his testimony.

"What kind of mockery is this hearing if a majority of you have already made up your mind?" Mecham asked as he began a fourth day of testimony.

At the end of his 13 hours of testimony, Mecham expressed optimism.

"If you vote to impeach me here, that is not the end of the world," Mecham said, adding that he would have the opportunity for a "fair trial" in the Senate, which would have to cast a two-thirds vote to convict him.

King Holiday Canceled

"I don't fear that in the least," said Mecham, whose term began in January, 1987, amid a storm of controversy over his cancellation of the state Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. "That will vindicate me."

The governor also attacked Atty. Gen. Bob Corbin, who is prosecuting Mecham and his brother, Willard, on fraud and perjury charges for allegedly trying to conceal a $350,000 campaign loan.

Mecham, who marked his 13th month in office Friday, was accused after a three-month impeachment probe of deliberately concealing the campaign loan, of illegally lending state money to his automobile dealership and of trying to block the attorney general from investigating a death threat allegedly made by one of his aides against another.

Questions on Mecham's last day of testimony centered on the $80,000 loan to his Pontiac dealership from proceeds raised at his inaugural ball.

Mistake Admitted

Mecham said that the loan was a political mistake but that it was not illegal because the funds did not belong to the public. He said the money was given to him to use at his discretion for any purpose except to pay campaign debts.

The governor said he suggested that the loan be made because his dealership would pay a higher interest rate than a bank.

Mecham denied trying to hide the campaign loan and said he did not obstruct an investigation into the alleged death threat. The governor did say, however, that he may have told the state's top law enforcement officer not to help the attorney general because he believed Corbin was "out to hang me."

Mecham, 63, was elected governor on his fifth try, capturing 40% of the vote in a three-way race. He came under fire immediately for abolishing the King holiday and ran into more trouble over a series of remarks considered insulting by blacks, women, homosexuals, Jews and Asians.

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