Trial By Media (Part II)

For month after month, Phoenix news reporters repeated a disgruntled secretary's half-baked charges, helping County Attorney Richard Romley discredit a rival in the Attorney General's Office. The same media horde made scarcely a whimper when Romley cover

From the beginning of his public career, Fife Symington has managed to survive amid a morass of white-collar-fraud allegations.

Though they tarnished him, all of the scandals came with bravura denials from Symington that inspired the faithful.

There was always an excuse and, in the case of Richard Romley's investigation of the bid-rigging at Project SLIM, there was even official absolution.

But with the Project SLIM settlements secured by Grant Woods and Rob Carey, the wrongdoing could no longer be denied.

Federal investigators expanded their grand jury investigation of suspected Symington corruption to include Project SLIM.

If the feds enlarged their scope of interest regarding the governor, the same could not be said for the local press.

There was not a single, detailed analysis in any Arizona newspaper of how the county attorney's investigation of Project SLIM ignored or avoided important, damning evidence--essentially, went in the tank. Nor did any news organization look in depth at the attorney general's success and how it was achieved.

Though a team of reporters from the Arizona Republic asked to look at the voluminous files of the attorney general's Project SLIM probe, which were now public record, the review was cursory. Nothing was published.

There was greater negligence, however. No daily news organization used the Project SLIM files as a jumping-off point to examine the relationship between Governor Symington and his accountants, Coopers & Lybrand.

The daily press was satisfied. If there had been bid-rigging--and the press resolutely stuck to the line that none had been admitted in the attorney general's settlements--the reported friendship of Symington, Coopers partner John Yeoman and Symington lieutenant George Leckie had been the only motive.

The corruption of Project SLIM, however, appeared to be much more complex than simple cronyism. In fact, there were many indications that the SLIM contracts given to Coopers & Lybrand involved a quid pro quo--that is, a financial benefit for Symington.

The relationship between Symington and Coopers & Lybrand was long-standing and surrounded by suggestions of impropriety.

The accounting firm did much more than simply supply one of its partners, Yeoman, as Symington's campaign treasurer.

Coopers & Lybrand had informally advised Symington on his early financial statements, when he was a young developer on the rise. The firm later supplied signed, official financial reports.

This critical paperwork served as the basis for lending institutions to fund Symington's multimillion-dollar high-rises.

And when creditors closed in on the highly leveraged Symington, it was Coopers & Lybrand that supplied the crucial financial reports that declared the governor unable to repay his debts.

In 1990, when trying to obtain a $10 million loan for the Mercado, a downtown Phoenix minimall, Symington reported a net worth of $12 million. One year later, in a financial statement reviewed by Coopers & Lybrand, the governor told a lender seeking repayment that he had debts of $23 million.

Thus armed, Symington maneuvered adroitly with his financial adversaries. His attorneys persuaded the Resolution Trust Corporation to forgo a lawsuit against the governor after his failed developments helped crater Southwest Savings and Loan, costing taxpayers nearly $1 billion.

When New Times began to sort through Project SLIM investigative files, research focused less upon the friendship of Symington, Yeoman and Leckie, and more upon the possible quid pro quo between the governor and the accounting firm.

The question was obvious: Were state contracts awarded to the accounting firm in exchange for benefits the firm could give to the governor?

Research eventually showed that Coopers & Lybrand had forgiven more than a quarter of a million dollars in fees that Symington owed to the firm during the very period when $4.6 million in Project SLIM contracts was awarded to the Big Six accounting firm.

And there was other evidence strongly suggesting the Project SLIM bid-rigging had been accompanied by a bribe.

New Times' John Dougherty unearthed confidential, internal Coopers & Lybrand memorandums that tied Symington personally to the effort to steer the SLIM contracts to his accountants.

As bad as the bid-rigging was, and as laudable as the attorney general's investigation of it had been, the question of cronyism versus direct payoff was certainly not satisfied by the AG's probe.

But for Arizona media in general, the attorney general's Project SLIM settlement was the end of their curiosity.

As far as the Arizona media were concerned, the matter was closed, until and unless the federal grand jury provided answers for them.

On July 17, six days after Woods and Carey announced coming to terms with Coopers & Lybrand, Leckie also settled with the attorney general. In addition to paying a $25,000 fine, he, too, was precluded from doing business with the state.

Richard Romley was temporarily humiliated. For a brief period, columnists needled Romley with their opinion that the county attorney looked like a fool, if not the handmaiden of Governor Symington, for clearing the perpetrators of bid-rigging.

With surprising deftness, however, the county attorney played his own cards.
As Deborah Vasquez's allegations first played out in the Mesa Tribune for four weeks, the county attorney helped the story build steam.

Romley asked friendly state legislators to vent their frustration with the attorney general in the press, according to two sources directly involved, both of whom requested anonymity.

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