Informer Friend of Fife

Bookish prosecutor George Cardona transforms governor's partner and ally into reluctant stool pigeon

Every day, television news crews form a gauntlet outside the federal courthouse, waiting to fire questions at the attorneys in Governor J. Fife Symington III's criminal trial.

The governor's lead defense attorney, John Dowd, is always eager to feed the media horde with bombastic comments, animated expressions and occasional profanity. In doing so, Dowd manufactures some drama in a trial that twists and turns on obscure financial nuance.

While Dowd tosses one-liners and boasts of exculpatory evidence, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Cardona quietly walks off. He often carries documents stacked as high as his chin.

The diminutive Cardona doesn't seek the spotlight, and he knows the case won't hinge on sound bites.

Instead, Cardona has taken on the painstaking assignment of dissecting more than a dozen of Symington's complicated real estate partnerships to expose a common theme of deceit. Often the butt of jokes for his monotone delivery and his resemblance to Woody Allen, Cardona is dismissed by some courtroom observers as boring and irrelevant.

But it was Cardona's weeklong, detailed questioning of Symington loyalist Jim Cockerham that set the stage for the prosecution to deliver a series of devastating blows.

For the first time in the case, the jury has heard bankers testify that Symington's financial statements misled lenders and, perhaps more important, that the banks would have wanted to know Symington's true financial condition. These points strike at the heart of the governor's defense--that his fictional financial statements were not material to any loan he got.

The testimony Friday, June 20, by Citicorp Real Estate Inc. managing partner David Feingold and Tuesday, June 24, by Debra Livermore, a former loan officer at First Interstate Bank, showed Symington repeatedly overstated assets and understated liabilities when he submitted financial statements to the banks.

Feingold's and Livermore's testimony would have been meaningless without Cardona's earlier questioning of Cockerham, who served as The Symington Company's chief financial officer from 1985 through 1991. (Cockerham now holds an $87,000-a-year job with the state.) Cardona introduced some 500 pages of exhibits during Cockerham's testimony--an incredible amount of documentation for a trial, let alone one witness.

The exhibits--along with Cockerham's reluctant and ponderous testimony--show in excruciating detail how each of Symington's real estate partnerships operated and how much control Symington exerted. The information was often overwhelming, leading one to wonder whether the jury can make any sense of it.

Yet Cardona's grasp of Symington's finances translates into a quiet confidence. Just as a master weaver starts a rug with a tangle of wool, Cardona used Cockerham to weave a jumble of facts into an eye-catching tapestry.

Cardona's interrogation of Cockerham forced the defense to address each real estate project in an attempt to counter prosecution points.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Terry Lynam tried to unravel Cardona's theme: that Cockerham was capable of providing Symington detailed, accurate information on all his real estate projects but that Symington ignored it when preparing personal financial statements that grossly overstated his net worth.

Lynam attempted to portray Symington as a hardhat-wearing developer who spent hours in the field overseeing construction of his projects but who did not review documents.

Cockerham was eager to fall on his sword, gushing that Symington "definitely was the big-picture man in the company" and that it was Cockerham, not Symington, who knew the financial details.

"He placed the reliance on me," Cockerham testified.
Lynam also sought to dispel the notion that Symington knew his projects were in trouble because he was constantly forced to cover operating losses. Instead, Lynam suggested that Symington's willingness to invest money in losing projects proved that he believed his real estate had value.

"Is it fair to say he was not running away from this property because it has no value?" Lynam asked Cockerham while citing one troubled project after another.

"Yes, it is," Cockerham quickly replied.
Lynam led Cockerham back through each of the real estate projects Cardona had examined, concentrating on one of the few projects where Symington's investors made money. But the way Symington and his cronies, including Cockerham, profited from the 5090 North 40th Street project may raise more eyebrows than esteem for Symington's business practices. Symington and his partners each put up about $200 cash and got back-up lines of credit when they created two real estate partnerships to build and operate the 5090 building. The Symington-managed partnerships then obtained a $24.25 million construction loan from MeraBank in 1987.

Just a few months into construction of the building, a subsidiary of U S West purchased it for several million dollars more than the loan balance--generating a cash windfall for Symington and his partners. Symington made $632,995 on his $200 investment, a return Hillary Rodham Clinton could only dream of during her cattle-future foray. Cockerham got $35,000.

Lynam used this example to portray Symington as a brilliant businessman who was willing to share the wealth with his employees.

Lynam and Cockerham suggested the many real estate failures could be blamed on partners who pressured Symington to sell properties at inopportune times. Complicating matters for Symington were interest rates and appraisals. Lynam and Cockerham agreed that Symington placed high values on his real estate projects because he expected to refinance them at much lower interest rates and pull cash from them.

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