ANALYSIS:SLIM PICKINGS AG'S PROJECT SLIM PROBE HASN'T TARGETED SYMINGTON, DESPITE EVIDENCE OF HIS INVOLVEMENT

Given the opportunity last week to go head-to-head with Governor Fife Symington, Attorney General Grant Woods flinched.

Not only did Woods pull his legal punches, refusing to seek criminal charges in his investigation of Project SLIM, the attorney general's actions also raise serious questions about why Symington is being distanced from the apparent rigging of two state contracts awarded to the governor's longtime personal accounting firm--Coopers & Lybrand.

In the last two weeks, two of Symington's closest longtime aides, John Yeoman, a tax partner at Coopers & Lybrand, and George Leckie, Symington's former deputy chief of staff, have signed settlement agreements with the state attorney general to avoid civil or criminal prosecution concerning two state contracts worth $4.6 million. The contracts dealt with the governor's centerpiece government reform initiative, Project SLIM.

Woods is now washing his hands of the affair, announcing Monday that the agreement with Leckie "resolves [the] Project SLIM procurement issue"--an issue that has mortally wounded two of Symington's confidants, but left the governor untouched.

Woods has failed to directly address the governor's role in SLIM contracting, even though powerful evidence in Woods' possession suggests Symington is as deeply implicated in some Project SLIM bidding irregularities as Leckie and Yeoman.

Further, Woods has not resolved a simple question that goes to possible motives for the strange activities surrounding the SLIM bid process: How much money, if any, did Symington owe his longtime accounting firm when the Project SLIM contracts were awarded in 1991 and 1992?

Woods' investigation so far has gone only slightly further than the probe Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley conducted last year. That inquiry found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing and has been widely dismissed as a whitewash.

Woods' probe, even with the two settlement agreements, adds little but a thin veneer of public relations spin to Romley's ugly whitewashing.

The attorney general's settlements call for Coopers & Lybrand to pay $725,000 to the state to end a procurement fraud investigation that focused on the accounting firm's amazing ability to suddenly lower its bid for a Project SLIM contract at the last minute by $440,000.

Leckie, meanwhile, admitted violating state procurement laws only tangentially related to his dealings with Coopers & Lybrand. He agreed to pay the state $25,000 and to cease his lobbying activities for three and a half years. In both cases, the state agreed not to seek criminal or civil charges in relation to matters involving Project SLIM.

Woods has deflected attention from Symington's role largely by focusing, at least publicly, on the first Project SLIM contract awarded to Coopers & Lybrand. That first contract was awarded in September 1991 and was worth $1.5 million. The second contract was awarded in July 1992 and was worth $3.1 million.

That second contract has Symington's fingerprints all over it, and Woods knows it.

Documents in Woods' possession show Symington and Leckie made promises to a Coopers & Lybrand official in early 1992 that the firm would be paid for additional Project SLIM work--six months before the contract for that work was publicly offered ("Anatomy of a Greased Bid," March 16, 1995).

What seem to be quid pro quo offers between Leckie, Symington and Coopers & Lybrand appear to violate the state's procurement laws, which forbid state employees from promising payment for work before contracts are awarded. The promises are documented in a three-page memorandum dated January 10, 1992, and prepared by Coopers & Lybrand partner Hank Schultzel.

Woods has a copy of the memorandum. So did County Attorney Rick Romley when he closed his criminal probe into Project SLIM in August 1994, declaring he had found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. So do the state's largest newspapers, the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, which have never mentioned the damaging Coopers & Lybrand memorandum or details of the second Project SLIM contract.

Woods' settlement with Coopers & Lybrand focuses on a well-publicized series of August and September 1991 telephone calls between Leckie, who was on the state selection committee reviewing bids to provide consulting services to Project SLIM, and Yeoman, who helped prepare Coopers & Lybrand's bid submissions. Coopers & Lybrand's initial $1.9 million bid was lowered at the last minute by $440,000--after documented telephone calls between Leckie and Yeoman.

Woods said investigators found no evidence that anyone in the Governor's Office other than Leckie was involved with leaking confidential bid information to Yeoman. It may be the case that Symington didn't know what his two closest campaign aides were doing. (Leckie and Yeoman did not return telephone calls; both men have said in the past they did nothing wrong.)

But even though Woods is considered a political foe of both Romley and Symington, all three are Republicans. Like Romley, Woods has chosen so far to ignore evidence that puts Arizona's governor in the middle of the bid-rigging scandal. In fact, Woods' agreements with Coopers & Lybrand and Leckie protect them from future criminal and civil prosecution involving not only the first Project SLIM contract, but also the second contract--a contract that clearly had gubernatorial involvement.

There is no doubt that Symington is deeply involved with all the major players in the Project SLIM scandal.

So far, despite two investigations, no one has answered--or, perhaps, even asked--a key question concerning Symington's possible motive for wanting Coopers & Lybrand to do the work.

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