Symington indictment further sullies Arizona’s political image

June 15, 1996

Associated Press

PHOENIX — For decades, Arizonans boasted of clean air and political clout. The air is dirtier now and so is the state’s political image.

The indictment of Republican Gov. Fife Symington marks the second time in less than nine years that an Arizona governor has faced criminal charges. During that period, two U.S. senators were ensnared in the Charles Keating Jr. savings and loan scandal. A bribery sting cost seven state legislators their seats, and put five behind bars.

“For Arizonans to have the leader of our state now indicted is embarrassing. It does hurt,” said Bruce Merrill, a veteran pollster and political analyst who teaches at Arizona State University.

Money — borrowed, contributed, stolen or taken as bribes — figured in all the scandals, which involved Republicans and Democrats.

Symington was indicted Thursday on 23 federal felony counts accusing him of lying to lenders and using his office to attempt to pressure a lender into releasing him from a loan guarantee. The indictment followed a September bankruptcy filing seeking protection from nearly $25 million in debts from his failed real estate business.

The turmoil has been a dramatic turnaround from the 1970s and early 1980s when Arizona’s political establishment was topped by a stable congressional delegation.

Now there’s concern among Arizona leaders that the scandals of the last decade might have a lasting impact on a state where the population has more than doubled since 1970.

“If you do any traveling, the first thing you hear is about the political instability of the state,” said Paul Eckstein, a co-prosecutor during former Republican Gov. Evan Mecham’s impeachment trial.

Symington’s indictment will be viewed “as a continuation of many of the problems we’ve had in our political structure,” said Mark DeMichele, chairman of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and head of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility.

Mecham, an outspoken conservative, was acquitted of criminal charges that he falsified campaign finance statements, but was convicted of impeachment charges of misusing $80,000 given to him by supporters, and obstruction of justice. He was removed from office in 1988.

Three years later, the “AzScam” sting resulted in indictments against 21 people, including seven legislators who accepted cash from an undercover agent posing as a crooked lobbyist. Six resigned from the Legislature and the seventh was removed.

Also in 1991, Republican Sens. Dennis DeConcini and John McCain were among five U.S. senators dubbed the “Keating Five” for their ties to the now-imprisoned financier. The Senate Ethics Committee rebuked DeConcini for his intervention with regulators on behalf of Keating and criticized McCain for “showing poor judgment.” Both Arizonans returned large campaign contributions they received from Keating and his associates.

Merrill believes much of the political turmoil can be traced to a “Gold Rush” environment that has attracted people from all over the country seeking fame and fortune.

“It’s kind of a land of new opportunity,” he said. “We’re attracting developers, guys who shoot from the hip, guys looking for a new start.”