Alaska governor, in impeachment testimony, tells his side of story. Sheffield tells state's senators he can't remember crucial meeting

Seven days after hearings began on impeachment proceedings, Gov. Bill Sheffield finally got his chance to explain the gap in his memory that led a grand jury to declare him unfit for office. ``I've wracked my brains,'' said Governor Sheffield, who nevertheless testified he could not recall a specific meeting in his office with his chief aide and a major campaign contributor who was seeking a state office lease.

Sheffield, a Democrat, spent Tuesday evening in a courtroom testifying before the state Senate Rules Committee. It is there, before all 20 state senators and a statewide television audience, that the governor's fight for political survival has been unfolding.

By most accounts, Sheffield's opening performance wasn't brilliant, but he didn't ``shoot himself in the foot with a smoking gun,'' the often-repeated standard by which his performance was being judged. Prior to his testimony, most political observers were predicting he would survive the impeachment process unless he demonstrated an overwhelming lack of candor.

Chief aide John Shively and campaign contributor Lenny Arsenault have both already testified that the meeting Oct. 2, 1984, led to a change in specifications for office space in Fairbanks, so that only one building could qualify for the $9.1 million lease.

Mr. Arsenault owns a small share of that building, and he represented it for the owners in a series of meetings with Sheffield and his staff. ``Basically, I was like a messenger boy,'' said Arsenault, who had raised $92,000 in postelection contributions for the governor in 1983.

In a July 2 report recommending Sheffield's impeachment, the grand jury said it was unbelievable that Sheffield couldn't recall that meeting and others in which the lease and the ensuing investigation were discussed. Sheffield appeared twice before the grand jury, and though no indictments were issued, the jury said he lied under oath.

But at the time of the Oct. 2 meeting, Sheffield testified Tuesday, he had a lot on his mind: an upcoming trip to China, the new state budget, and the appointment of a management board for the Alaska Railroad, which the state was about to purchase.

Under the questioning of his longtime attorney and friend John Conway of Anchorage, Sheffield said he had taken only a ``minor interest'' in the office lease.

But Sheffield became testy and, toward the end, somewhat shaken during the hour-long cross-examination by Watergate veteran Samuel Dash, the Senate attorney.

Mr. Dash, who became known to millions of television viewers in 1973 as the chief counsel to the US Senate select Watergate committee, attempted to demonstrate that Sheffield took unusual interest in the lease.

And, in using a newly discovered memo written by Sheffield that hadn't been seen by the grand jury, Dash showed that the governor had been discussing the building and Arsenault's ownership at least six months earlier than previously disclosed.

Senators who commented on the governor's first day as a witness said they have not made up their minds on how they will vote.

``We've just begun the truth-finding part of the perjury question,'' said Sen. Joe Josephson (D).

Sen. Vic Fischer (D) said Sheffield handled himself confidently and spoke as well as he ever had as governor.

It takes two-thirds of the Senate to return a bill of impeachment. The vote is not expected until next week.

If the Senate impeaches Sheffield, a trial would be held in the State House over whether to remove Sheffield from office.

The Senate is divided among 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats. But in Alaska politics, party labels can be secondary to the traditional rural-urban split. Of the four senators who have consistently criticized the grand jury for urging impeachment proceedings, one is a Republican from ``the bush,'' a Sheffield stronghold.

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