Denouement or Vindication?

Jurors in Symington's 12-week criminal trial hear closing arguments, begin deliberations

The governor turned to his family, and his wife and two eldest sons came close. The four stood in a tight circle behind the table where the governor sat as a defendant throughout a historic and an epic criminal trial.

His wife, Ann, who throughout the trial had remained composed, bore a contorted and puffy face.

Moments earlier, 12 jurors had been selected from the panel of 16 that heard testimony from 40 witnesses and saw more than 1,300 exhibits during Symington's 12-week trial.

The jurors filed from Judge Roger B. Strand's courtroom on the third floor of the U.S. District Courthouse and entered the jury room at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, August 8. There, they will deliberate five days a week, eight hours a day, until they reach verdicts on 19 counts of bank fraud, one count of perjury and one count of attempted extortion.

Before recessing to deliberate, the jury heard closing arguments from prosecutors and the defense. Harsh words like "con man" and "liar" cut deeply into Symington and his family.

If the jury agrees, Symington will lose his title and probably go to prison.
Closing arguments are not evidence to be weighed by the jury, but they do provide both sides the opportunity to draw conclusions that jurors might not otherwise consider. They provide an opportunity for the attorneys to make bold assertions of guilt or innocence.

The style and content of closing arguments usually reflect the substance and strength of a case. The Symington case was no exception.

Assistant prosecutor George Cardona initiated the final phase of the trial with a methodical reexamination of the key evidence. Cardona's undergraduate training in physics was apparent as he assembled blocks of evidence into a thick-walled fortress surrounding Symington.

Defense attorney John Dowd followed with an emotional, five-hour oration filled with theatrics worthy of a televangelist. Dowd's fiery performance moved the governor to tears and appeared to poke escape holes in the fortress walls.

But since the government has the burden of proving guilt, it also gets the last word. Prosecutor David Schindler doused Dowd's melodramatics by telling the jury to simply focus on the evidence. In the end, Schindler used Symington's own words against him.

The Physicist
The prosecution did not want to leave the jury with the image John Dowd attempted to create--of an irresponsible federal government engaged in a witch hunt to destroy a governor who has made bashing the feds a pastime.

Instead, prosecutors strove to present their voluminous evidence in a polite, dispassionate manner, to a jury selected from one of the nation's most politically conservative populations.

Keeping with the government's low-key approach, it was fitting that George Cardona delivered its closing argument. Cardona's demeanor and appearance are anything but threatening.

But behind the horn-rimmed glasses lies an encyclopedic mind immersed in the minutia of Fife Symington's business. He knows it like a sports junkie knows batting averages.

Ferreting out fraud is child's play compared to mastering physics, Cardona's major during undergraduate school at Yale. Understanding how forces interact over time is essential to physics--and also to the crimes Symington is accused of committing.

Cardona urged jurors to carefully consider who had said what, and when they had said it.

Symington, Cardona said, intentionally overstated his net worth when he submitted personal financial statements to lenders to obtain loans. Symington needed the loans to build the commercial projects that enabled him to collect millions of dollars in development and management fees. Once the buildings were completed, however, rents rarely covered the loan payments.

For a time, Symington attempted to make up the shortfall, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into the projects. But when the real estate market began to unwind in the late 1980s, Symington's meager cash reserves were quickly depleted.

Rather than personally covering the shortfalls as Symington had guaranteed when his partnerships obtained the loans, Symington began giving some of his lenders dramatically weaker, although more realistic, financial statements. He hoped the bleak picture would convince lenders to release him from repayment obligations.

But during this crucial period in 1990 and 1991, Symington did not give consistent financial statements. At the same time he told First Interstate Bank during negotiations over a failing real estate project that his net worth was negative $4 million, Symington told Valley National Bank during discussions to renew more than $1 million in unsecured loans that his net worth was $5.4 million.

"It's important when you look at the statements to consider the time at which they were made and the purpose for which they were made," Cardona said.

Throughout the trial, the defense has admitted that errors appeared on the financial statements, but claims they were unintentional. Symington testified that he prepared the financial statements from memory and paid little attention to them because his lenders were only concerned about the real estate projects to be developed, not his net worth.

Cardona urged the jury to reject the excuse.
"One mistake, two mistakes, three mistakes, fine, you forgot," Cardona said. "But when you look at these financial statements, it's not one, two, three mistakes. It is 20, 30, 40 false entries."

And these errors, Cardona said, were not committed by some greenhorn who didn't understand financial statements, lending or real estate practices.

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