Criminal With an Asterisk

Has ex-governor J. Fife Symington III gotten his just desserts?

The sanitizing of Fife Symington was going so incredibly well.

He had enjoyed an April 23 spread in the Arizona Republic's "Food & Drink" section, in which he was pictured grinning over the "Governor's Cake" he's created in his new role as pastry chef at Franco's Italian Caffé in the Camelback Esplanade.

A couple of weeks earlier, none other than the New York Times had written about how he'd returned to celebrity in Arizona by reinventing himself after going to cooking school and then starting his own Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale before becoming part-owner and dessert king at the new eatery helmed by friend Franco Fazzuoli.

Sweet deal: former Governor turned pastry chef Fife
René Milot
Sweet deal: former Governor turned pastry chef Fife
Protector of the realm: attorney John Dowd
Protector of the realm: attorney John Dowd

Ads for Symington's cooking institution were on Phoenix television, and along the way in April, even New Times -- the journalistic bane of his existence when he was governor of Arizona -- had reviewed the latest Franco's favorably, finding Fife (who'd have thunk it?!) to be a genius torte-maker.

"Interestingly, the real stars of the new Franco's are the desserts -- courtesy of Fife himself," wrote this publication's restaurant reviewer, Carey Sweet, in the April 17 issue. "I'm floored by how luscious the marenghata is -- it's a frozen cake of baked meringue and amaretto cream; sort of a crunchy-edged cheesecake. The real cheesecake, fashioned with lots of mascarpone, is melt-in-the-mouth marvelous."

Despite the Republic's rave about "The Governor," his triple-chocolate-layer cake, Sweet found it the worst of Symington's otherwise extraordinary sugary inventions. Hmmm.

But Fife saw something he didn't like in Sweet's column -- or at least the attorney who's spent years defending Symington's image did. In writing about how she and her party -- along with others in the dining room that day -- had come to the restaurant in the hopes of getting a gander at the only Arizona governor ever to resign from office following a conviction on criminal charges (you know, the food's cooked by a crook resurrected -- the latest in dining experiences), she uttered a couple or three of what the Fife publicity machine considers no-no words.

"Your article falsely and maliciously stated that Governor Symington is a criminal' and that he finagled millions of dollars in loans by using false financial statements,'" John M. Dowd, Symington's Washington, D.C., mouthpiece, wrote in a letter demanding that Sweet's review be withdrawn from New Times' Web site, retracted and apologized for. Or else (yikes!) further legal action might follow.

Dowd continued, "Referring to Symington, the article went on to state: criminals are fascinating . . .' Your repeated statements referring to Governor Symington as a criminal' and a crook' and accusing him of false financial statements are patently false. The jury verdicts on the remaining counts against Governor Symington were reversed and vacated by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999. The United States chose not to pursue the charges. Moreover, Governor Symington received a presidential pardon in 2001. Thus, as a matter of law and fact, he is completely innocent of the charges and not a criminal.'"

Okay, let's talk about John M. Dowd for a gosh-darn minute.

He's a partner at what is arguably Washington's most politically influential law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. No commas, no conscience (at least where Dowd and Fife Symington are concerned). Dowd has peppered New Times with e-mails and demand letters over the years. His specialty is representing government officials in big-time legal trouble. Here's a snippet from Dowd's résumé on the Akin Gump Web site: "Mr. Dowd is noted for his representation of a U.S. district judge, a former U.S. attorney and two U.S. senators. . . . Mr. Dowd has represented a U.S. senator before the Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee [this is John McCain, who was dragged before Ethics as one of the infamous "Keating Five" senators]." A couple of legally troubled governors are also thrown into the mix on his curriculum vitae.

You get the picture. And J. Fife III not that long ago was at the top of any list of governors in trouble with the law in the good ol' USA. It was during Fife's criminal trial in Phoenix that Dowd slapped a tape recorder out of New Times staff writer John Dougherty's hand as he was attempting to interview the prickly wideload about some of Fife's finagling. Oops, there we go again with one of them nasty no-no words. (It was Dougherty who broke the story about Symington's sleazy shenanigans as a real estate developer in the '80s that led to the criminal charges.)

Yet there's no discounting that Dowd's a smart lawyer, and that's why almost everybody I've talked to in town is wondering what could have possessed him to open up the can of weasels surrounding his client again. Could he have borrowed former Washington mayor Marion Berry's crack pipe before he wrote his latest demand letter to New Times quibbling over a positive restaurant review? As a foodie (who porked out on Honey Bear's barbecue when he was in town for the lengthy Symington criminal trial), Dowd should have realized how many fellow chow hounds that review would draw to the cafe where Fife bakes his brains out.

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