THE GOVERNOR'S 800-POUND GORILLA

Last month the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour devoted a segment to Arizona. The idea of the broadcast, loosely speaking, was to discuss the sheer wonder of living in a state where seemingly normal adults have actually elected into office the stunted race-baiter Evan Mecham, tsetse fly survivor Rose Mofford, a Shriners' caravan of state legislators videotaped stuffing wads of cash into their pockets in exchange for votes, two of the Keating Five and notorious savings and loan freebooter J. Fife Symington III.

I was interviewed for the telecast.
The PBS host, Spencer Michels, draped questions around his guests like a worried uncle might offer a comfortable old cardigan, but behind his polite eyes you could see the thought blinking: How long can it possibly be until Randy Newman writes a song about the people of Arizona?

During the broadcast, I suggested that our governor's business record did not rival Ross Perot's.

Now I am told that my statements on MacNeil/Lehrer about Governor Symington were "malicious," "false" and "defamatory." These are not terms often linked with the network that brought us Jacques Cousteau.

Writing to me on behalf of the governor, Washington, D.C., attorney John Dowd demanded a front-page retraction in New Times explaining that my "statements have caused obvious and irreparable damage to Governor Symington's reputation."

Reputation?
Dowd is defending this very governor against the $197 million lawsuit filed by the Resolution Trust Corporation over Symington's role in the collapse of Southwest Savings and Loan Association, a collapse that also triggered criminal referrals which are under investigation by the justice department and the FBI. Dowd also represented Symington in the Congressional probe into Southwest's demise.

This is the reputation that has been damaged? I think the real dilemma is that Fife Symington simply refuses to face the fact that he is a scoundrel. Like an alcoholic, the governor refuses to admit there is a problem.

No one can possibly believe that Fife Symington is a victim of "irreparable damage," no one except John Dowd.

Once New Times publishes a front-page retraction, Dowd says he "will be prepared to discuss an amount sufficient to settle and compensate Governor Symington for his damages and expenses."

There are a number of legal responses to such sentiments but plain English covers the situation best: When pigs fly, Mr. Dowd, when pigs fly.

We must put aside for a second the question of airborne swine; let us also ignore the clumsy suggestion that New Times retract something that ran on MacNeil/Lehrer. It is worth pausing to note that Mr. Dowd is at least correct on a minor point regarding the broadcast and that I was wrong. But the issue hardly merits the attention of a high-priced Washington lawyer.

Dowd is one of those larger-than-life characters, an attorney used to locking horns with Mafia chieftains, baseball heroes and FBI directors.

Today, Dowd has been hired by our governor to direct Symington's performances in the savings and loan drama.

This theatrical production is not limited to a single stage; instead there are three venues: the media, the courts and Congress. The chief roles are taken by journalists, Congressional investigators and lawyers from the RTC, all of whom are competing to read the S&L script to an American audience that has sat through this overlong matinee with just one thought: What the hell happened to all that money? As Dowd gathers his energies for the dānouement with the RTC and its lawsuit against Symington, he must simultaneously showcase the governor's work while preventing journalists and politicians from stealing Symington's scenes. Dowd's tools include avalanches of paperwork, threats of litigation and a remarkable ability to distract attention from the critical issue to the trivial detail.

His reputation as a six-foot-three-inch, 240-pound tough guy doesn't hurt either.

Dowd's bravura interpretation of events has, on occasion, rendered Congress and the media speechless. To the extent that Dowd is able to, in effect, pull the plug on the microphones used by other voices in the savings and loan drama, it is Symington's reading of events that occupies center stage.

And our governor is proving to be quite the hambone Hamlet.
"As you know, they're suing about, what, over 100,000 people across our fair land and they've made something like 40,000 criminal referrals as well. It's the biggest legal juggernaut that's ever been created in the country," Symington told the accommodating MacNeil/Lehrer host. "In fact, they're almost, I think, trying to say it's against the law to lose money."
Bravo! Bravo! In this world-class production, Dowd's letter of demand for retraction to me is not an isolated event.

Dowd's correspondence is part of a sophisticated campaign of legal muscle being flexed across the country and directed at anyone who criticizes the governor.

Susan Schmidt at the Washington Post said she had been targeted with a half dozen of Dowd's letters. Her immediate editor as well as the Post's executive editor, Leonard Downey, have also been upbraided by Dowd. John Dougherty said his paper, the Mesa Tribune, has at least six of Dowd's letters. In New York, Institutional Investor was asked to retract; closer to home, the Arizona Republic's Mary Jo Pitzl was also singled out by Dowd for a letter of demand.

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