Trusting in Family Values

Last week, Governor Fife Symington told the howler monkeys who listen to KFYI talk radio that he was the victim of "a legal ambush" in bankruptcy court.

From the governor's tone of shock, you'd think the bankruptcy lawyers sprang upon him during his morning shower. In any case, the question of surprise misses the point.

"Legal ambush" does not quite capture the carnage, the blood and the soft-tissue damage that Symington suffered during his October 31 hearing. Like a patient sitting up and taking nourishment for the first time after an accident, the governor is still in shock and understandably incoherent. Apparently, no one has told Fife he was in a car wreck, and his political career was totaled.

The lying, the conniving and the sharp real estate practices of Governor Fife Symington were exposed in his $25 million bankruptcy hearing on Halloween.

The preliminary revelations are not a large surprise to those of us who have chronicled his path into Chapter 7, a trail that has also led to a federal grand jury probe.

What is new, and startling, is the role of his spouse, chemical heiress Ann Symington.

Once considered the dutiful, long-suffering mate, Ann didn't even attend the bankruptcy hearing. Nonetheless, her persona was transformed during the Chapter 7 proceeding from a hausfrau into Lady Macbeth with green eye shades and a pocket calculator--a woman who laundered Fife's debts, engaged in sophisticated cash transfers and perpetrated multimillion-dollar flimflams.

Or perhaps she is just a co-dependent enabler.
Ann's precise complicity in her husband's financial misrepresentations is somewhat clouded because a smart lawyer kept her out of bankruptcy court. She has answered no questions.

But this much is crystal clear.
The tale of Ann and Fife Symington is more than a mere reading of ledger entries on loan defaults.

This is a story of family values.
The Symington family valued other people's money with a reckless abandon that has landed it in court. And any suggestion that the Symingtons are the victims of unpleasant attorneys ignores the record.

Consider Governor Fife Symington's remarkable application for a $10 million loan from a pool of union pension funds to constuct the Mercado minimall downtown.

As the largest creditors in the governor's bankruptcy case, the unions were allowed to question the governor.

Their attorney, Michael Manning, presented the governor with a copy of the paperwork Symington personally filled out to obtain the loan.

At the top of the financial statement, in large type, it says that Arizona is a community-property state. Simply put, this means the assets and liabilities of a husband and wife are considered together in the loan application. This is not a small matter to a lender since Symington's wife is a highly publicized heir to the Olin Chemical fortune.

None of the language printed on the statement is in complex lawyer garble (and remember that Symington was a savvy borrower). Nor is the section on community property hidden in a footnote that might be overlooked. It is the very first item on the page. It has a large, all-caps headline--"PLEASE READ CAREFULLY"--over two short paragraphs.

In very clear and concrete language, the financial statement form says that if you and your spouse do not treat your assets as community property, if you treat those assets instead as "sole and separate property," please check this box.

On Symington's financial statement, the box is blank.
Fife Symington represented to the union pension fund that the assets and liabilities of the Symington family were community property.

Which is a lie.
Ann and Fife had a prenuptial agreement. Though it was not disclosed in the bankruptcy hearing, Ann has already testified, very specifically, about that document in a Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) proceeding. All of Ann Symington's assets were "sole and separate property." That had always been the case.

If Fife Symington defaulted on the loan, which he did, the pension funds had no chance of recovering their money from Ann's fortune. Her money, the governor admits, was tucked away in untouchable trusts.

For that matter, Fife has testified that his inheritance, as a descendant of Henry Clay Frick, is also squirreled away in untouchable trusts. Not that his financial statement revealed this little secret.

On the contrary: The financial statement Manning handed to the governor showed that Symington listed the securities in his trusts, valued at nearly $800,000, as readily marketable.

In other words, Symington told the unions that, if need be, he could sell the stocks in his trust for almost $1 million.

Which is another lie.
Symington, by law, is not allowed to touch his trust. He testified that he receives interest payments from the securities in the trust, but has absolutely no control over those blue-chip stocks, which are held by Mellon Bank.

Symington's response to Manning on these lies was the same: This is only paperwork.

Personally, I'm a big fan of unmitigated arrogance, but Symington's position is very bold.

A federal grand jury is looking at indicting the governor for submitting false information in his applications for loans. I don't know that a legal strategy dismissing the paperwork as an irrelevant nuisance is guaranteed to keep him out of prison.

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