Cinema Verite

Le Big MacFor two years, a federal grand jury has investigated Governor Fife Symington's business dealings. The state's chief executive is suspected of being the Mac Daddy of phony financial statements.

Financial statements are the backbone of all loans, credit lines, investments, partnerships, debt restructuring, write-downs and all the other transactions that separate the Armani suits from the dorks.

Banks, savings and loans and pension funds rely upon financial statements, absolutely, when they cut you a loan.

For that reason, it is a felony to submit false financial statements. It can land your butt in prison for up to 30 years and cost you a million dollars in fines every time you get caught lying.

It's almost as bad as putting mayonnaise on your French fries.
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On September 20, Governor Symington sought protection in bankruptcy court to avoid paying back the millions in pension funds he'd borrowed to build the Mercado. It was a Kodak moment gone cinematic: Atrust-fund descendant of one of America's most notorious strike-busters, Symington borrowed $10 million from Arizona unions... and then stiffed them.Like all Fife deals that interest the feds, the Mercado loan was structured on Symington's financial statements.

Thanks to the open nature of bankruptcy proceedings--the unions can demand all of Symington's business records--you will now get to see how the governor pulled it off.

In particular, you will hear a full accounting of the explosive "Ivan Memorandum," a document that offers an unforgettable inside view of the federal grand jury's investigation of Le Big Mac.

Oh, I'm going to the bankruptcy hearing. That's all there is to it. This ain't no dry-as-parchment deal going down.

No, man, you'll dig it the most.
A Royale With Cheese
I remember the arrogance and the pomposity of his candidacy for governor in 1990, an impression enhanced by the musk of blue blood suggested by his very name, J. Fife Symington III. He was the not-so-distant spawn of that obscene robber baron Henry Frick, and he had moved here to save us.

"What Arizona needs right now is a business mind," Symington said to the press in his campaign announcement. "The state needs a man who can provide experienced, professional fiscal management to pull it out of its economic crisis.

"I am that man."
After the lean jerky we'd all survived on during the administration of that impeached cracker car dealer, Evan Mecham, Symington seemed to be offering beef Wellington. Which is not to say that anyone thought this was the second coming of Camelot.

Arizona has never been about political campaigns. The action here has always been in real estate; young bucks left law firms to wheel and deal while Dick Dale's Miserlou twanged on the Jag's stereo. Symington was trying to change the natural order of things by deserting the world of real estate jungle boogie for the realm of public accountability. Some of us were skeptical. And as it played out, Fife Symington was a man with something to hide from the very beginning.

When a suspicious reporter from this paper asked for an accounting of Symington's highly leveraged, $200 million domino developments, the candidate dropped the velvet curtain of propriety over his business affairs.

"I do development, and I do politics," Symington told the journalist. "They're two separate things, and I try to keep them that way. And that's it."

Wasn't he grand? Why, the man was positively papal.
Can you blame the average guy on the street for feeling, just a little bit, like Fife was inviting all of us to join him at the banquet of life? And all he asked was that we remember our table manners.

Almost as soon as Symington was elected in 1991, his financial empire collapsed. His net worth dropped faster than Robin Givens on Mike Tyson's best night.

Finally, last month, having just returned from a splendid family jaunt through the capitals of Europe, he declared bankruptcy.

Now Symington's Chapter 7 will allow all of us to look into Fife's financial hamper.

Because all of Fife's dirty laundry is open to inspection by his creditors, it is a highly public wash-o-rama. And what you will see is that he was not a victim, as he claims, of the real estate market. Fife was a grifter, a confidence man from the git-go.

At times, Symington's high financial appraisals of his projects were Saudi Arabian in their grandeur.

Other times, he could hardly get it up to maintain even a semblance of a charade of propriety.

When Symington persuaded his fellow board members at Southwest Savings and Loan, for example, to invest in his own Esplanade, the single largest play in the S&L's 32-year history, he submitted a flimsy, four-page "letter of opinion" instead of the narrative appraisal required by law. Nobody ever put a pencil to this $30 million pipe dream. Nor did Symington bother to get the written approval of federal oversight regulators on the Esplanade scheme--oversight which, again, was required by law.

Instead, Fife and the boys sat around the board table and played winky-dink with each other--though he did, for the sake of appearances, excuse himself from the final vote on the institution's investment in his own project. Symington used the life savings of Phoenix's working stiffs to finance his megalomania. (Fife's original plan for the "world class" Esplanade included an enormous tropical rain forest in the atrium; he thought it was a smashing idea to bring New Guinea to 24th Street and Camelback.) The Esplanade soon became the biggest loss in the billion-dollar collapse of Southwest.Following the S&L's failure, criminal referrals that included Symington were sent to the Justice Department. He was also named in the federal government's $197million lawsuit against Southwest's directors.It was all such a shock.

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