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.

There is little time to linger in the afterglow.
Cardona is heading back to Los Angeles in an hour. Schindler is to appear on an evening public television news program. Hancock is to provide the taxi service. Loveman is ready for dinner.

Will Schindler and Cardona be back in Arizona for more white-collar prosecutions stemming from Symington's conviction? Several high-profile business associates of Symington received notice more than a year ago they are under criminal investigation.

"I can't comment on that," Schindler says, a response that can be liberally interpreted to mean more indictments could be around the corner.

While Symington's bravado on the courthouse steps may provide emotional support for him and his family, the former governor is stuck on an increasingly slippery slope toward prison.

Strand ordered Symington to voluntarily report to a federal prison camp at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas on March 20 to begin serving his sentence. But don't expect Symington to trade his expensive suit for prison garb next month.

His attorneys already have asked Strand to allow Symington to post a bond to remain free pending the outcome of a planned appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking a new trial. If Strand doesn't agree to a bond, Symington can ask the appeals court for a bond hearing.

The appeals court--which long has been a favorite whipping boy of Symington for its "liberal" treatment of convicted felons--is likely to look favorably on Symington's bond request.

Symington, Dowd says, meets the criteria for staying free on bond because he's not a threat to anyone's safety, he's not likely to flee and his appeal has merit.

If Symington manages to post bond, he buys another year or so of freedom before the appeals court will rule whether to uphold the district court verdict or order a new trial.

Symington's appeal will be based primarily on the argument that Strand improperly removed juror Mary Jane Cotey from the jury after six days of deliberations. Cotey was dismissed after her fellow jurors sent a note to Strand complaining that she had made up her mind before reviewing all the evidence and fully discussing the merits of the case.

Symington and his attorneys are claiming jurors wanted Cotey off the panel because she decided Symington was innocent.

"She came to a conclusion she had a reasonable doubt," Dowd says.
While Cotey's removal appears to give Symington a powerful argument that he deserves a new trial, prosecutors say the appeals court gives judges great leeway in conducting a trial. It is unlikely the court would second-guess Strand's decision to remove Cotey unless it concludes he seriously abused his judicial discretion.

The appeals court will only review the official court record of the case, including Strand's interviews with Cotey and the other jurors. Transcripts of the interviews show there was no definitive discussion of where the jury stood on the merits of the case.

"If Cotey had said she was the holdout on an 11-1 vote, we would have had a far more difficult time" in supporting her removal, Schindler says.

As jeers increase from a group of Native Americans angry at Symington's political legacy, the former governor thanks the crowd for listening to his comments, turns away from the podium and heads directly toward this reporter standing six feet away.

For more than seven years, New Times has sought interviews with Symington to discuss the mounting evidence in the public record that indicated serious trouble lay ahead.

Symington refused scores of requests for comments and ordered his staff and agency heads to also reject any interview requests.

Symington's ironclad rule was to ignore New Times.
But on the day of his sentencing, Symington changed his mind.
Symington wanted to address last week's story ("Writing a Sentence," January 29) that interpreted a conversation he had with jurors and a subsequent comment to Dowd differently from what Symington says he intended.

Moments after shaking hands with three jurors outside the courthouse following a January 20 hearing, Symington told Dowd, "That's a hell of a position to be put in, isn't it?"

New Times interpreted Symington's comment to be referring to himself, and was just another example of his insincerity. A call to Dowd prior to publication was not returned.

"I didn't mean that I was in a hell of a position. I was referring to the jurors," Symington said while extending his hand.

His determined voice and steady stare made it clear he was sincere, perhaps for the first time of the day.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: jdougherty@newtimes.com

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