May 12, 1997
By JERRY NACHTIGAL
PHOENIX — J. Fife Symington III was a political newcomer when elected governor in 1991, promising to use his skills as a developer to revive the Arizona economy.
Six years later he is presiding over an economy humming like an air conditioner in August, and fighting for his financial and political life as he prepares for trial Tuesday on charges of bank fraud, attempted extortion and perjury.
Symington supporters claim the charges are an attempt to destroy the governor’s political career and amount to nothing more than a few unintended bookkeeping errors.
Prosecutors say Symington is just the latest in a long line of Arizona politicians who played footloose with banking laws to line their own pockets.
“He says he’s not guilty, but it looks pretty threatening — a 23-count indictment,” said former Gov. Evan Mecham, who himself was kicked out of office in 1988 when the state Senate impeached him over a questionable campaign loan. “On the other hand, you don’t know. A jury has to make that decision.”
The two-term Republican faces hundreds of years in prison for allegations that stem mostly from his developer days. Conviction on a single count would require him to resign.
Prosecutors allege that before he became governor, Symington used creative bookkeeping to keep his gleaming office buildings and shopping centers afloat in Arizona’s boom-to-bust real estate economy in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
He is accused of repeatedly lying about the value of his crumbling empire on personal financial statements to get loans. He’s also accused of using extortion and perjury to keep things together while governor.
“Here’s somebody who ran for office, a strong, successful, millionaire businessman, who knew at the time he was broke or near broke and managed to pull it off,” said attorney Michael Manning, who represents Symington’s largest creditor in his bankruptcy case. “It’s a fascinating story.”
Symington’s lawyers insist he is innocent. Any errors and omissions on his personal financial statements were unintended, they said.
“None of (Symington’s) mistakes caused any harm or loss to any lending institution,” attorney John Dowd said.
Symington, 51, joins a long list of Arizona politicians who have been swept up in scandal in the past decade.
In 1991, three years after Mecham was impeached, seven state legislators were indicted for taking cash from an undercover agent posing as a crooked lobbyist in the “AzScam” sting. Six resigned from the Legislature and the seventh was removed.
That same year, Arizona Sens. Dennis DeConcini and John McCain were among five U.S. senators dubbed the “Keating Five” for their ties to financier Charles Keating, the notorious figure of the 1980s savings and loans scandals. Both men were rebuked by their fellow senators and returned large campaign contributions received from Keating and his associates.
Symington may have appeared immune from temptation, given that he campaigned as a millionaire. But in about one year’s time he filed for bankruptcy and was indicted.
He’s about $15 million in debt, owed mostly to a consortium of labor unions whose pension funds loaned him $10 million for an ill-fated development in downtown Phoenix.
But he’s learned a little about politics during his ups and downs. Despite facing ruination, he made it known he is still showing up at his job ready to do the peoples’ work.
“Getting ready for the war that’s coming, but it’s never diverted me from my public duties, and I won’t let it,” he said.