Official Secrecy Acts

Fighting a legal war on multiple fronts, Symington and his attorneys turn to a time-honored tactic: stonewalling

According to records filed last week in U.S. District Court, Symington received a letter from federal prosecutors in January 1993 informing him that he was a target of a criminal investigation.

That letter told Symington the government was investigating whether he "submitted materially false financial information to financial institutions and other lending organizations in order to obtain credit for himself, or for entities with which he was affiliated."

Symington and his criminal attorney, John Dowd, met with Department of Justice officials on two days in February 1993 to discuss the governor's personal financial statements. Before he spoke with Justice Department personnel, Symington was read his Miranda rights.

During the next three years, Dowd submitted five lengthy letters to federal investigators "in a further attempt to persuade the government to decline prosecution," prosecutors say in court pleadings. The letters addressed many of the acts the government now alleges were illegal.

Last winter, court records show, the government sent the governor "written notice of the potential charges" he was facing, and met with Dowd in December 1995 to discuss the evidence underlying the charges.

Although there were repeated meetings and lengthy discussions before the June 13, 1996, indictment, Dowd is now demanding the government provide more specific detail on the charges against Symington.

Federal prosecutors responded to Dowd's request for more information by sending a ten-page letter late in June. The letter details the charges in the indictment and provides the names of individuals the government believes to be co-conspirators in those alleged crimes.

Dowd then asked for additional information. Among other things, he requested that the government say whether it intended to introduce evidence of other criminal acts Symington allegedly had committed, but the government had yet to charge him with. The government responded on July 23 with an eight-page letter detailing approximately 34 such uncharged acts that may be addressed during the trial.

The identity of the co-conspirators and details related to the 34 uncharged acts are unknown. Just as Symington has repeatedly tried to seal or prevent the release of key documents in the bankruptcy case, Dowd's five letters to the government and the government's letters to Dowd have been filed with the U.S. District Court in Phoenix under seal--at Symington's request.

Federal prosecutors have asked for a hearing next month to unseal the documents.

Besieged on two expensive legal fronts, Arizona's chief executive now faces perhaps the most immediate threat to his governorship--a well-organized statewide recall campaign.

A legitimate recall effort raises the stakes considerably for Symington. Each additional negative disclosure in bankruptcy court or his federal criminal case could translate into additional signatures for the recall effort.

Organizers of the latest recall campaign will launch their drive Thursday. To succeed, they must collect at least 282,402 signatures from registered voters within 120 days. If they do, Secretary of State Jane Hull will be required to schedule a gubernatorial election sometime next May or June. The election would be open to an unrestricted number of candidates who meet filing requirements, including Symington.

While several recall efforts against Symington have failed during his five years in office, none has been led by experienced political players. Unlike another ongoing recall campaign organized by the publisher of a Phoenix weekly newspaper distributed by the homeless, the latest campaign has political and financial muscle.

The Symington Recall Committee has bipartisan leadership that is well-versed in grassroots political movements.

The committee is chaired by longtime Democratic party activist John Ahearn, who served as a member of the state Corporation Commission in 1979 and opposed construction of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Ahearn is joined on the committee by former secretary of state Richard Mahoney, Cochise County Democratic Supervisor Mike Palmer, Sun City retired businessman and Republican Walter Bush and former Tucson state Democratic legislator John Kromko.

Ahearn says the committee expects to raise $125,000 to pay petition circulators to collect recall signatures. The first major push will be at selected precincts during the September 10 primary election.

A key element in the success of the recall campaign, Ahearn says, is a steady stream of news stories detailing the legal troubles that have engulfed the governor and his top aide, George Leckie.

"I'm really counting on a Chinese water torture. That's part of our plan--news stories, letter writing," Ahearn says.

Leckie's scheduled trial next month in federal court will refocus public attention on corruption allegations that have dogged the Symington administration and the governor personally since 1991. And the federal trial may just be a prelude of problems to come for Leckie as the attorney general's probe of purchasing by the state corrections department intensifies.

Symington may be able to counter some of the bankruptcy and criminal case press coverage--which so far has been spotty and less than comprehensive--through his leadership of a juvenile justice reform initiative that will be on the November ballot.

The campaign committee supporting the Symington-backed initiative is funded nearly entirely by large corporate donations, including $40,000 contributions from Dial Corporation and Phelps Dodge and a $30,000 donation from Del Webb. It is likely Symington will be able to raise even more money from friendly business interests.

Challenging the business community doesn't disturb Ahearn, who has a long history of grassroots activism.

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