Symington Gets Slammer

Cheers and jeers greet news of ex-governor's prison stint

In the center of attention, as he has been for years, Fife Symington takes stock of the situation.

To his side stands his shell-shocked wife, Ann. Dressed in a red blazer and black skirt, she dutifully assumes her role as the loyal, supportive companion of the fallen leader.

On the perimeter, his entourage awaits a cue. The cabinet includes lawyers John Dowd, Terry Lynam and Luis Mejia; political advisers Jay Heiler, Wes Gullett and Chuck Coughlin; and former gubernatorial spokesman Doug Cole.

Thirty minutes earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Roger B. Strand had sentenced Symington to 30 months in a federal prison camp for his conviction on six counts of bank and wire fraud. Strand ordered Symington to pay a $60,000 fine, complete 500 hours of community service and be placed on five years' probation upon release.

The sentence could have been worse, far worse--up to 10 years in prison and $16 million in restitution. Symington is clearly relieved that Strand agreed with his contention that the real estate crash of the late 1980s was the primary cause of losses to lenders and imposed a sentence within six months of what he anticipated.

The worst part of the dismal day is over. The uncertainty of how much prison time he could face has been replaced with a fixed time.

His children, particularly his teenage son who was most upset at the sentencing drama, have left the courthouse with their grandparents.

Now it is time to face the horde of reporters and the vengeful hecklers waiting outside the door of the U.S. District Courthouse.

Before the next engagement, the group takes a moment to steady itself in the relative sanctity of the hallway outside the U.S. Pre-Trial Services Office, where Symington has just emerged from discussing what he must do prior to entering prison on March 20.

"Everybody's spirits okay?" Symington asks as he reassumes the leadership role he covets so much.

A few people quietly respond.
"Good," Symington says.
The elevator bell rings, but Symington decides against the lift.
"Let's walk down the stairs," he says.

Symington leads his loyalists down two flights of stairs and out the courthouse doors where he's welcomed with an outburst of jeers from a handful of rabid onlookers delighted at his fate.

Symington appears unfazed. He's well prepared for the public appearance and, as he has in the past, admits to mistakes while declaring victory in the face of another public humiliation.

"I regret the errors that I have made," Symington says. "But did I commit a criminal act? No. Do I intend to fight to assert my innocence? Yes. And do I think that ultimately I will prevail? Yes, I do."

Later in the afternoon, FBI agent Ken Hancock grabs one arm of the rabbit-ear television antenna and begins waving his free arm in a futile attempt to amplify the dismal reception on the jury-rigged television monitor connected to a videocassette recorder.

The tips of the antenna are stuck into the acoustic ceiling tile rather than properly mounted. There is no normal television set, let alone basic cable access, inside the spartan offices of the government team that investigated and successfully prosecuted Symington.

But Hancock makes do with what's available.
Prosecutors George Cardona and David Schindler and forensic accountant Steve Loveman watch the fuzzy picture as Hancock scrolls the network news programs to see if Symington's sentencing will make national news.

Nearby, several well-worn copy machines are pushed against a wall. A couple of computers in various stages of disrepair are piled next to copiers. Across the room, stacks of newspapers are stretched across a long table, their headlines declaring key moments in the trial.

A corridor leads from the central staging room to another room where nearly 1,000 boxes of documents are stacked and catalogued. Inside the boxes lie the clues that led to Symington's political downfall and conviction.

"Welcome to the bat cave," Schindler says while leading an informal tour of the prosecution's nerve center located on the second floor of the U.S. Postal Building in downtown Phoenix, just a few blocks north of the federal courthouse.

The news shows drone on with the standard fare: Iraq, Monica Lewinsky and the nation's first balanced budget since 1969 steal the thunder from Symington's sentencing. Finally, Symington's face appears over the shoulder of ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, who reads a one-sentence report summarizing the former governor's fate.

Inside the bat cave, there is a round of laughter at the brevity of the report. It's just another day, another sentencing, another white-collar case brought to an end, says Cardona.

Sure, Symington will appeal and drag out the inevitable for a long time, perhaps years, Cardona says. But sooner or later, Symington, like scores of other fraud artists convicted in federal court, will eventually end up in prison.

The prosecution team doesn't appear to be taking any particular delight in Symington's fall from power and his prison sentence. Instead, there is a matter-of-fact sense of professional satisfaction that the case has been completed and that Strand imposed a prison sentence.

"We are always concerned that a judge is going to depart from the guidelines" and impose a lighter sentence than recommended by sentencing rules, Schindler says.

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