Jan Brewer

PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer told state agency chiefs last year that if they wanted to be spared budget cuts, they would need to prove their programs were more worthwhile than the mental health services that were about to be eliminated.

What was not widely known then is the level of her knowledge of Arizona's mental health system: Her son, Ronald, now 47, has been a patient at the state hospital for 20 years after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1989 sexual assault of a woman.

"Everything we do in life, our challenges and our successes, they become part of us," the governor told Capitol Media Services this week. "When you've become affected in different ways, of course, it makes you a different person."

Her son's troubles were not something Brewer discussed much with colleagues during her 14 years in the Legislature, nor in her time on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors or her six years as secretary of state. But nothing was hidden: The records were open at the courthouse to anyone who went looking.

That all changed in January 2009. Just days before she was scheduled to be sworn in as governor, her son's lawyer persuaded Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pendleton Gaines to seal the criminal record.

Such action is rare in Maricopa County.

Aaron Nash, a special counsel to the clerk of Superior Court, said there were 40,000 criminal cases handled in 2009. Four were sealed.

Brewer said she played no direct role in having the records placed off-limits. But the governor, in a pair of interviews this week, said she agreed with her son's request to shield the case from public view.

"Becoming governor was obviously a huge impact, not only on myself but on my family," she said. "He just felt it would benefit himself and I suppose myself, because he's protective, of course, of me, to get them sealed."

Brewer, a Republican, also said if she had wanted to hide her son's problems she would have encouraged him or his attorneys to have the records sealed years earlier.

In his 2009 request to seal the records, Reginald Cooke, the younger Brewer's attorney, wrote: "It has come to our attention that others have recently attempted to embarrass Ronald Brewer and his family by publicizing his criminal and mental health problems." But Cooke said the issue related strictly to his concerns for Ronald.

"These types of incidents and any use of his hospitalization and records jeopardize and compromise his mental and physical health," Cooke wrote. "In the past Ronald has become so upset that he has stopped taking his medications, and decompensates."

The same judge who sealed the records made them public Monday at the request of The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix. In a story Tuesday, the Republic reported that it sought the records in May, and the court clerk's office released portions. When the governor learned from the newspaper in June that it had the file, a legal case ensued. Her son's lawyer asked the judge to order the newspaper to return the file and to ban it from publishing anything from it. The newspaper asked that the file officially be reopened.

In hindsight, Brewer said, her son's request to make the criminal file private "may have ended up making a bigger story out of something."

She also said her son is "entitled to some privacy."

The records show Ronald Brewer was indicted on two charges of sexual assault and one count of kidnapping. In July 1989 he forced his way into a woman's apartment, slapped her numerous times and then committed sex acts against her.

In February 1990, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gregory Martin concluded Ronald Brewer was not legally responsible "because at the time of the conduct, the defendant was suffering from such a mental disease or defect as not to know the nature and quality of his acts, or that was he was doing was wrong." Martin committed him to the Arizona State Hospital.

Brewer said the assault occurred because he "decompensated," a term mental health professionals use when the condition of someone who had been functioning normally deteriorates.

Brewer said her son continues to live at the hospital, though court records show he is permitted off-ground passes with staff or with his parents.

"He's had a long history of mental illness, something that he and his family, we've had to live with," the governor said. "He has fought hard for his well-being, before and after this incident."

And while she hopes for successful treatment, including the possibility that he eventually will be discharged from the state hospital, the governor said she is under no illusions that his life will ever be "normal."

"He is seriously mentally ill," said Brewer, who added that she talks with him daily by phone. "He will always be under the jurisdiction of mental health providers."

Brewer said everything that has happened to her son becomes part of her "market basket" of experiences.

"You call on those tools," she said.

That has made her an advocate of programs to help the mentally ill.

"I believe that they are probably one of the most vulnerable populations in society, the misunderstood populations in society," she said.

Just months into office, Brewer insisted that Republican legislative leaders restore some cuts they had proposed to balance the budget.

Leading that list was nearly $9 million taken from a program to provide mental health services and drug treatment to people who are not poor enough to qualify for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program, but who do not earn enough to be able to afford coverage of their own. That equated to a 25 percent cut in the program.

The governor also demanded that lawmakers restore $2.1 million cut from programs to serve those in that same income category who have cognitive disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism or epilepsy.

Brewer also was a main force in persuading legislators to put a measure on the ballot in May - and getting voters to approve - a temporary 1-cent increase in state sales taxes.

The governor said the alternative was deeper cuts for needed programs.

Even with that, though, she was forced to accept $36 million in new cuts for the current budget year in services to the mentally ill whose income made them ineligible for AHCCCS.

During her time as a legislator, Brewer supported a change in law to eliminate the option her son used where judges can find people not guilty by reason of insanity. It was replaced by a law that says someone can be found "guilty but insane."

Brewer said that change followed a series of high-profile cases where people killed others, were found insane and then released after being declared "cured."

"I think the public, as well as myself at that time, felt people were using the plea to their advantage," the governor said of her vote at the time. "It was like a shield."

The key difference under the current law is that someone found guilty but insane can be ordered to prison once found competent rather than simply being released.