By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
That question is an obvious one: How much money, if any, did Symington or his failed development business owe Coopers & Lybrand in 1991 when the Project SLIM contract was improperly awarded to Symington's personal accounting firm?
Symington's development empire crashed in the late 1980s, wiping out what he said was a personal net worth of $12 million. Did he owe his longtime business accountants Coopers & Lybrand anything in the wake of the collapse of The Symington Company?
If Symington didn't owe any money, then the Project SLIM scandal can be written off as political cronyism.
But if Symington did owe money, more questions are raised--questions concerning misconduct in or malfeasance of office. The possible answers to those questions might make Evan Mecham's infamous protocol fund loan, which led to his impeachment, look like a speeding infraction.
Even business associates are wondering why the governor's financial situation at Coopers & Lybrand has not been probed.
"Fife didn't want Coopers to get the contract because he just thinks they're nice guys," theorizes one businessman familiar with Symington's business strategy. "I'll bet you 50 to 1 there is some kind of financial involvement someplace."
By the end of 1991, Symington's personal finances and his role on the board of directors of the defunct Southwest Savings & Loan were the focus of federal civil and criminal investigations. The criminal probe continues. As part of the criminal investigation, Yeoman was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury.
Another grand jury witness tells New Times that as recently as six months ago, federal prosecutors were zeroing in on Symington's alleged practice of submitting different financial statements to different lending institutions during the same time period. Lying on financial statements in connection with a bank loan is a felony.
Federal prosecutors have been asking questions about Symington's use of multiple financial statements for some time. In 1993, prosecutors grilled Symington's former personal secretary, Joyce Riebel, about Symington's alleged use of multiple financial statements, according to a transcript of the interview obtained by New Times. Riebel also stated that Coopers & Lybrand was involved with preparation of Symington's financial statements ("She Was Only Following Orders," February 2, 1994).
Coopers & Lybrand is deeply involved with Symington on many levels: an extensive federal grand jury investigation, his personal and business accounting and his centerpiece initiative, Project SLIM.
The key question remains: Did the governor use state funds to pay off private debts to Coopers & Lybrand? The only way this question will be answered is through a state or federal investigation, or by a public disclosure of Symington's personal financial records.
Symington's behavior in the wake of the state's settlement agreement with Coopers & Lybrand can charitably be judged strange. That behavior also provides fodder to the theory that Leckie and Yeoman have the governor over a barrel.
Rather than distance himself from two men who had been publicly disgraced in Woods' press conference, Symington continues to embrace them.
Symington said Leckie--a man who fled a hit-and-run accident, botched the Governor's Office finances and improperly billed his girlfriend's Hawaiian vacation to the state, among myriad other improprieties--is "a person of very high integrity."
The governor said Yeoman--who has been questioned by a federal grand jury investigating Symington's personal finances--"did a wonderful thing for this state" in winning the Project SLIM contract for Coopers & Lybrand.
Symington stands by Leckie and Yeoman, two men who know the intimate details of his turbulent financial and personal life. As long as Yeoman and Leckie do not divulge those details, and if Woods and the daily press ignore evidence that implicates the governor, Symington will likely not be sucked into the SLIM sinkhole.
The story of Coopers & Lybrand and Project SLIM doesn't end with George Leckie's telephone calls to John Yeoman. In fact, the story gets more interesting--and more damning of Symington--in the months after Leckie's cellular calls.
The run-up to the second SLIM contract provides extraordinarily direct evidence of Symington's intimate involvement in promising future work to Coopers & Lybrand.
Eleven days after Coopers & Lybrand was awarded the first contract on September 9, 1991, the Governor's Office assumed direct control over "all budgetary and expenditure decisions" on Project SLIM from the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, according to a September 20 memo from Symington aide Elliot Hibbs to budget director Peter J. Burns.
"This memo is notification that you have no responsibility in these financial decisions and will not be held accountable for them," Hibbs' memo reads, even though the Legislature appropriated Project SLIM money to Burns' office.
Hibbs then makes it clear why the appropriation is being removed from Burns: "This relief of budgetary responsibility and accountability reflects the governor's desires as to how the appropriation should be controlled."
The first SLIM contract worth $1.5 million called for Coopers & Lybrand only to develop cost-cutting recommendations. But implementing those recommendations was where the real money was--as much as $6.8 million.
By January 1992, Coopers & Lybrand and Symington agreed to expand the role of the firm to include implementation of its cost-cutting recommendations, Coopers & Lybrand documents show.
Coopers & Lybrand partner Hank Schultzel updated other partners on the implementation talks with the stunningly frank, three-page, January 10, 1992, memo. The memo speaks volumes on how the accounting firm viewed its relationship with the state and the governor.