Best of Fife Vol. II
Editor's note: In 1994, New Times printed Volume I of "The Best of Fife." The New and Improved Volume II incorporates the best of Volume I while adding all of Fife's greatest accomplishments since. And it's fat-free.
The Early Years
Best Pedigree: J. Fife Symington III
What can we say? The guy's a Frick. Symington's great-grandfather, steel robber baron Henry Clay Frick, amassed one of America's great fortunes. A century later, Fife tries to emulate great-grandpapa, becomes an Arizona real estate robber baron.
Best Family Tradition: Marrying Rich
Like his dad, who married Martha Frick, Fife III follows the family tradition of marrying rich. His wife: Ann Olin Pritzlaff, heiress to a multimillion-dollar chemical manufacturing fortune.
Best Coaster Degree: Dutch Art History at Harvard
If only the young Fife had had the foresight to major in business or accounting. . . . Perhaps he would not be headed for prison.
Best War Post for a Guy With a Degree
in Dutch Art History From Harvard:
Air Traffic Controller, Posted in Thailand
In 1990, the Symington campaign staff fudges the Fifester's war record by releasing a photo of Fife posing as a Vietnam war fighter pilot. Problem is, Fife wasn't a fighter pilot. He was an air traffic controller and a paper pusher.
Best Contribution to the Democrats:
Pulling Bill Clinton From the Salty Brine
Fife claims that as a college student vacationing on the Atlantic Coast, he rescued Bill Clinton from a "rip tide." No one in the Clinton camp recalls such an occurrence, but geez, you'd think Bill would be buoyant.
Best Reason to Divorce Fife: Lack of Funds
In the 1970s, Fife's first wife tells the court she wants a divorce because Fife is never gainfully employed and is in constant debt. She later marries a guy who works for a living.
The Arizona Years
Best First Date With Future Second Wife:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Divorced and pecuniarily embarrassed, Fife hustles chemical heiress Ann Olin, then a college student. On first date, they see film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, about the love affair between a bank robber and an enabling schoolteacher. Ann later becomes a schoolteacher. And Fife will later plunder banks.
Best Drive-by by a Future Symington Aide:
After drinking too much wine, George Leckie slams his Oldsmobile into two innocent bystanders on the night of March 15, 1988. Victims John Faust and Maria Torregrossa are injured, but Leckie flees the scene. Leckie plea-bargains the hit-and-run charges down to a misdemeanor and settles out of court with the victims.
Best Financier: Fife
Symington scribbles an unusual item on his personal "To Do List" circa 1986: "Get checks to McCain."
Best House-of-Cards Real Estate Emperor: Fife
He submits wildly conflicting financial statements to various banks to get loans that are never repaid--and hits up friends, wife and mother for loans that are never repaid. The emperor boasts about the crown jewels of his development empire--the Mercado and the Esplanade--never letting on that the developments are in trouble or that he's lied to lenders. By 1996, 22 out of his 23-project real estate empire are financial failures. And those bogus financial statements come back to bite.
Best Loan Processor: William E. Miller
Desperate to obtain financing for the Mercado, developer Symington in October 1987 turns to a consortium of union pension funds managed by William E. Miller. Miller arranges $10 million in financing for the Mercado. As part of the deal, Symington pays Miller's company a $10,000 "loan processing" fee. Miller is later fired by the pension funds after they learn he is collecting loan processing fees. That is only the beginning of Miller's problems. He is later convicted on federal charges and sentenced to three years in prison for taking kickbacks. The $10,000 fee paid by Symington is later returned by Miller's bosses to the pension funds.
Best Wishful Thinking:
Fife's Presidential Aspirations
In one partnership agreement, Fife includes a clause that alters the agreement (reducing Fife's payments) in the event he is elected president of the United States.
Best Show of Audacity:
Symington for Governor '90
With his real estate empire secretly crumbling, Fife runs for governor posing as successful developer and businessman. The media and voters lap it up.
Before the election, New Times opines, "We need to know whether hard economic times have hit him [Symington] harder than most. If they have, we need to ask whether this state could endure a governor facing personal bankruptcy. If they haven't, we need the hard data to understand how he's managed to succeed in a market where others--straight shooters and hucksters alike--have failed."
We'll never say we told you so.
The 1990 Campaign
Best Lunch Date: Annette Alvarez
Alvarez, a beautiful young college dropout who sells radio ads, listens to motivational tapes and calls up the Great Real Estate Emperor and gubernatorial hopeful. Fife buys Annette lunch at the Ritz-Carlton. Impressed by Annette's finer points, Fife appoints her press secretary of his first gubernatorial campaign. Annette admits she has no idea what a press secretary does. Fife doesn't care. She can do other things.
Best Campaign Memo: "My Dear Fife"
In 1989, clueless press secretary Annette writes her famous "My Dear Fife Letter"--"I do know I love you, and it will be forever, but I don't think it's the kind of love I'm looking for. . . . I am slowly going under by allowing this heightened intimacy to continue."
Best Martyred Wife of a Candidate:
Ann Pritzlaff Symington
Despite well-publicized Fife-Annette relationship, Ann does not dump Fife. Instead, she keeps giving him money.
Best Way to Illegally Buy an Election in 5 Easy Steps:
1. Ann "lends" Fife's first campaign $750,000.
2. Fife's mom, Martha Frick Symington, "lends" the same campaign a total of $600,000, making the total of both "loans" from rich mom and rich wife $1.3 million.
3. Fife sneaks $10,000 from the campaign chest to pay Annette's delinquent state and federal taxes. Fife collects $115,907 in interest from the campaign donations made by mother and wife.
4. Ann "buys" the $600,000 "loan" from mom for $10, then "forgives" it. Ann also "forgives" her $750,000 "loan."
5. Because campaign contributions are limited to $550 per person, the $1.3 million in "forgiven loans" become illegal campaign contributions.
Best Way to Weasel Out of Being Prosecuted for Violating Campaign Law: Lie
When questioned, Ann and Fife's mother tell prosecutors the $1.3 million they "lent" Fife constitute bona fide debts that will be repaid by Fife. Prosecutors don't learn of Ann's "forgiveness of debt" for years. By then, the feds are after Fife for bank fraud.
The Guv Years
Best Stonewall: The Symington Administration and Public Records Requests
Governor Symington is twice awarded the "coveted" Brick Wall award from the Arizona Press Club, for his knack at ignoring public records requests. The club considers renaming the prize after Fife. In keeping with his image, the Fifester has no comment.
Best Quickies: 100-Day Legislative Sessions
There are many fans of Fife's 100-day legislative sessions, particularly the big-business lobbyists who use the frenetic pace to ram through goodies for their clients. One longtime lobbyist describes a Symington session as "just like a candy store."
Best Friend to Suffering Kids--Not:
The Symington Administration
Best Reason to Offer Government Assistance:
Sumitomo-Sitix's north Phoenix silicon-wafer plant doesn't just mean a lot of jobs and a lot of concern about hazardous waste. It also, potentially, means big bucks for the First Lady's family. Olin Microelectronic Materials Inc., the Valley's sole supplier of hydrofluoric acid--a compound Sumitomo will need--is a division of Olin Chemicals, which, in turn, is owned by Olin Corporation.
Ann Symington is an heir to Olin Corporation and the beneficiary of at least two Olin Corporation trust funds.
Best Foreign Flim-Flam: A Bargain for Sumitomo
State appraisals made in September 1995 for land wanted by Sumitomo look suspiciously low: The state wants to sell prime land in the Desert Ridge area for $63,000 per acre when nearby lots were going for more than $100,000 per acre.
But for Fife, the discount of land intended to raise money for Arizona's schools isn't deep enough. Fife writes to a Sumitomo manager in Japan, assuring him that the appraisals were "flawed," and Fife's lackeys at the Land Department order new appraisals and demand that estimators take a cool $7 million right off the top of Sumitomo's parcel. The new fire-sale estimations will save Sumitomo $60 million over the life of its lease--money that would have gone to school districts.
Best Judgment: Ramon Alvarez
The father of Annette, of course. His appointment to a judgeship by Fife causes an outcry in Cochise County. But after being handed his seat, he's so muddled he forgets to file paperwork to stand for election to the Superior Court bench. Locals say he would have been drubbed anyway.
Best Obsequious Republicans: Legislators
They still think he's a great guy.
Best Story Ignored by Mainstream Media:
Grand Jury Probe
New Times reports in September 1993 that a federal grand jury is investigating the Guv. Five months later, the Arizona Republic stumbles onto the story.
Best Car of the People: The Guv's Chevy Suburban
Fearing that his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car casts an elitist image, Fife trades down to a new, chauffeured, four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban, equipped with tinted windows, grille lights, cellular phone and police radios. Price tag: $30,000. He calls it a "Car of the People."
Symington trades in the Suburban for . . . a Lincoln Town Car.
Best Attempted Coup:
Fife's Move to Take Over the Grand Canyon
In 1996, the governor hatches a brilliant plan: Wrest control of Grand Canyon National Park away from the feds. The idea comes about after the park is closed as part of the federal government shutdown forced by congressional budget battles. During the 1995 shutdown, Symington successfully deploys the Arizona National Guard to the scene to keep a small area of the park open.
The idea that the state should permanently run the park goes nowhere, as do many of Symington's grandstanding schemes.
Best Pretend Vacation:
Fife Goes to the Grand Canyon--Sorta
The Arizona Department of Tourism admits that a plaid-clad likeness of Fife was cut and pasted onto a photograph of the Grand Canyon.
Presto! Fife Does Arizona for a state tourism ad. Truth is, Fife prefers to take his vacations out of state.
Best Foreign Affair: Japan Trade Mission
Thousands of dollars in massages, poolside drinks and expensive accommodations are charged to the state by Fife and his entourage on a whirlwind trade tour of Japan and three days of R&R at a Hawaiian luxury hotel. Fife and Annette (by this time his $60,000-a-year foreign-trade adviser) stay in adjoining $320-a-night rooms and, along with Symington pal Jim Marsh, run up more than $3,000 in expenses. While in Japan, Symington secretly meets with top officials of Shimizu Corporation, his equity partner in the Esplanade.
Best Trip in States: New York
In 1992, Fife and Annette go to New York City on "official state business." They stay at the Westbury Hotel in adjoining rooms. Fife pays for Annette's room with his personal credit card.
Best Staffing Change: Annette
After the New York trip becomes public, Fife reluctantly bows to political pressure, and Annette resigns as his $60,000-a-year foreign-trade representative. She moves into an office in the Esplanade. She is known to businessmen as the "consultant" who can bend the governor's ear.
Best Proclamation: Fraud Awareness Month
At the behest of organizers of the Western States Fraud Conference, Symington declares October 1996 Fraud Awareness Month. Arizonans are now eagerly awaiting the announcement of October 1997 as Fraud Amnesty Month.
Best Costume: Fife Goes Tropical
In honor of the signing of the so-called Veggie Hate Crimes bill, Symington dons a produce-laden hat.
Honorable mentions: Fife dresses in a gorilla suit in honor of the Phoenix Suns' 25th anniversary; aide Jay Heiler as an alien in 1997.
Best Work by State Employees: Top 10 Reasons Arizona State Employee Pay Ranks 50th
In celebration of Governor Symington's 1996 annual Employee Recognition Day, state employees show up for work wearing tee shirts that say why their average salary is 50th in the nation:
10. There are only 50 states.
9. The rankings are not compiled in Arizona.
8. Helps other states look better. "Thank goodness for Arizona."
7. Productivity and turnover costs are not a line item in the state budget.
6. State service provides free training and experience for employees moving to local government and the private sector.
5. Turnover cuts down on career workers and frees up future retirement funds for emergency repairs to Lotto.
4. Low pay will continue until employee morale improves.
3. No one likes a bureaucrat, anyway.
2. When state employees qualify for the welfare programs they administer, they are more knowledgeable about the programs.
1. Arizona State Service: It's not just a job, it's an indenture.
Best Accouterments for a Symington Exec:
Barry Aarons' Bullwhip and Handcuffs
In keeping with the Symington administration's touchy-feely attitude, Aarons keeps a whip and handcuffs on a shelf in his office when he serves as legislative director.
Best Ideologue: Jay Heiler,
Symington Chief of Staff
In the mid-'80s, Heiler is one of the postpubescent Reaganites who takes control of Arizona State University's State Press and gets ASU a reputation as a Petri dish of conservative thought.
A decade later, Heiler emerges as Fife's communications czar and philosophical salt lick. Heiler writes speeches, schmoozes the Capitol press corps and comes up with policies that made Symington the darling of the National Review set.
Best Gubernatorial Nickname:
"His Pale Badness"
Honorable mentions go to "The Fifester," "Sir Fire-a-Lot," "Vanilla Fife," "Jumpin' Jack Fife," "Fi-Fi," "Governor Three Sticks" (irate Native Americans), "J. Fife White Guy III" (Tucson Weekly).
Best Physical Description of "His Pale Badness":
Charles Kelly, Arizona Republic
In a profile during the 1994 campaign, Kelly writes, "Fife Symington, though his forebears are Scottish, has the white-blond hair, the bonfire eyebrows and the sun-flushed, translucent skin of a Teutonic knight."
Best Digs: The Governor's Remodeled Offices
The renovation, completed in 1996, features a marble spiral staircase connecting the eighth and ninth floors of the executive towers. Cost: a cool $1.7 million.
Best Half-Assed Attempt to Defeat a Governor:
Eddie Basha for Governor, 1994
Best Half-Assed Attempt to Recall a Governor:
Symington Recall Effort
Best Pork: Project SLIM
Fife says it's designed to cut costs and improve efficiency in state government. Not exactly true. SLIM is actually designed to pay about $3 million to Fife's personal accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand.
Best Way to Repay Your Accounting Firm With Taxpayer Dollars:
In 1991, Coopers & Lybrand has highest of five bids to win a $1.5 million SLIM contract--the first of a pair of million-dollar-plus SLIM contracts. George Leckie, Symington's then-chief of staff, and John Yeoman, Fife's accountant at Coopers, meet after Leckie learns of the five bid amounts. Coopers immediately lowers its bid, gets the contract. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office says nobody did anything wrong, but in 1995, the Arizona Attorney General's Office nails Coopers for $725,000 and Leckie for $25,000 for their roles in the SLIM scandal.
Then Leckie and Yeoman are indicted by the feds for bid-rigging fraud in 1996. Coopers settles with the feds for more than $2 million.
Best Unlucky Lackey: John Yeoman
After confessing his complicity in the bid-rigging scandal, he dies in a car wreck in April 1996.
Best Lucky Lackey: Leckie
He is found not guilty of bid-rigging in a federal trial in May 1997. The reason: Yeoman is dead and the judge won't allow his confession into evidence.
Best Way to Jeopardize Retirees' Money:
Arizona Real Estate
In 1994, Fife and Leckie put their pal, risky-bound-to-lose-your-money investments guru John Stiteler, on board of Arizona Retirement System. Stiteler, of course, recommends risky investments with retirees' money. After public outcry, Stiteler angrily steps down. Later, Fife's appointees decide the $13 billion retirement fund can invest in Arizona projects.
Best Pre-Bankruptcy Vacation:
Fife and Ann Do Paris
Two months before Fife files for bankruptcy, Ann takes the entire family on a trip to France, to celebrate the Fifester's 50th birthday.
Best Impersonation: Of an Impoverished Person
In September 1995, Fife files for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He claims debts of $25 million and assets of $61,795.
Best Toadies: Department of Public Safety Brass
Tired of battling with DPS leaders, Symington appoints lapdog Joe Albo to run the agency in January 1995. At Symington's direction, Albo rapidly promotes a former member of the governor's security detail, Charlie Warner, to the No. 2 spot in the agency. DPS morale plummets.
Best Reason to Like Mexicans:
They Appreciate Corruption
Symington tells a Kiwanis Club meeting, "They actually like me in Mexico. I actually get treated like a governor when I'm in Sonora. They even suck up to you."
Best Mexican Connection:
Alejandro Canelos Rodriguez
Symington strikes up cozy relationship with Alejandro Canelos, one of the world's largest produce growers based in the drug-infested Mexican state of Sinaloa. Canelos can't get a permanent visa to enter the United States because he's suspected of drug trafficking by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
No problem. Symington flies on DPS state plane to Culiacan, Sinaloa, and holds private meetings with Canelos in October 1995, one month after a "J. Fife Symington" joins Canelos on the board of directors of a Mexican company called Melones Internacional.
Best Crony South of the Border: Manlio Beltrones
The former governor of the Mexican state of Sonora, Beltrones and Symington exchange mushy letters heaping praise upon one another. Symington and Beltrones have frequent meetings, and Symington's family vacations at Beltrones' Guaymas, Mexico, waterfront home. Beltrones is thrust into the national spotlight when the New York Times reports he has been linked by U.S. law enforcement agencies to narcotics traffickers.
Best King Air: Yours (Fife's)
Immediately after becoming governor, Fife orders DPS to purchase a $1.7 million turbojet aircraft for his use. Fife, a pilot, frequently uses the plane for personal vacations, including trips to Mexico, Texas and California. The plane comes in handy during his 1994 reelection campaign. He takes one of his criminal defense lawyers, Luis Mejia, with him on a flight to the 1997 Rose Bowl.
Best Civil Suit: Resolution Trust Corporation v. J. Fife Symington III
The RTC sues Symington and other bank bigwigs in U.S. District Court in 1991, claiming their actions led to the demise of Southwest Savings and Loan. Three years later, the suit is settled for $12.1 million. Symington pays nothing, but discovery in the case helps the feds nail him later, in criminal court.
Best Indictments in the History of Arizona: Fife's
After years of investigating, the feds indict Fife in June 1996. He is indicted on 21 counts of bank fraud, one count of perjury and one count of attempted extortion. Fife, of course, says he's innocent. Later, two counts are dismissed by a federal judge.
Best Sign That You're Unemployable Elsewhere:
Governing by Trial
Despite the indictments and a three-month trial, Fife refuses to step down from the Ninth Floor. He figures he can run the state in his spare time.
Best Chance Meeting: Felon and Felon to Be
In February, Charles H Keating Jr. and Fife are spotted in the same small store at the same time, standing less than 25 feet apart, and don't see each other--or at least pretend they don't see each other. It happens near 44th Street and Camelback.
Best Gasbag: Defense Attorney John Dowd
Fife's defense attorney may look like Julia Child in drag, but there the similarities end. He's gained fame for nailing Pete Rose and George Steinbrenner in the Major League Baseball scandal, but he goes over to the dark side when he defends Keating Fiver John McCain. McCain introduces him to his most profitable client--John Fife Symington III. At the trial, Dowd tries to confuse the jury with his nonsensical blustering. On the courthouse steps, he swears at reporters, insults them and even whacks at one of them.
Best Media Suck at the Trial:
Mark Flatten, Tribune Newspapers
Best Political Suck at the Trial:
State Senator John Kaites
Best Fair-Weather Friend:
U.S. Senator John McCain
Fife and the senator share everything--from hair color (white) to ideology (conservative) to counsel (John Dowd and Jay Smith) to staff (Symington's former chief of staff Wes Gullett came from the McCain camp).
When Republican Barbara Barrett dares to challenge Symington in 1994, McCain publicly chastises her. When his friend Fife goes to trial in May 1997, McCain is supportive. But one can't help but postulate that now that Fife's headed for the Big House, McCain's absence will be noticeable.
After all, McCain has his eye on a different House.
Best Secretary Since Rosemary Woods:
After getting immunity from prosecution for herself, Fife's ex-secretary reluctantly testifies she typed, then hid, Fife's wildly conflicting financial statements under lock and key--and sent them to the appropriate banks at the request of her boss.
Best Hail Marys:
Marydell Pritzlaff and Mary Jane Cotey
Mary Jane Cotey is bumped off the jury because she isn't able to track the material and can't fill out her lunch request form. Marydell Olin Pritzlaff, Fife's mother-in-law, shows no class at all when she punches TV news reporter Lew Ruggiero on the courthouse steps, then sticks out her old tongue at a photographer who captures the unprovoked assault.
Best Reporter Who Deserves a Purple Heart:
Best Let-Them-Eat-Cake Act: Ann Symington
The first lady writes thank-you notes and doodles during most of her husband's trial.
Best Faulty Memory: Fife
Famous for his grasp of details, Symington suddenly can't recall much about those financial statements when he takes the stand.
Best Reluctant Witness Who Got a State Job:
Can you blame The Symington Company's former chief financial officer for being reluctant to testify against his boss? Fife gets him cushy state jobs after the real estate empire capsizes--first in the Governor's Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting and now as Director of Finance for the state's health-care program for poor people--AHCCCS.
Best Nearly Deaf Judge With a Lifelong Tenure on the Federal Bench:
Judge Roger B. Strand
During the trial, Judge Strand frequently cups his ears and bellows "I can't hear you" to lawyers making motions. Then, sometimes without ruling on the motion, he barks: "Let's move along."
The lawyer for Fife's deceased mother, Martha Frick Symington, testifies that Fife hit up his Mama when she was alive for $3.5 million in a three-year period--including a year and a half that Fife was Guv. In 1992, Washburne chastises Fife in a letter for being a spendthrift: "Your mother simply cannot continue these advances," Washburne writes, noting that Fife and Ann have living expenses of about $600,000 annually--while their income is only $300,000. "Some kind of Project Slim for the family is clearly in order," Washburne writes.
Best Jury Verdict in the History of Jurisprudence: Fife's
Fife's convicted of defrauding Valley National Bank two times, defrauding a Japanese bank four times and a group of union pension funds once.
Best Farewell: Fife's Post-Conviction Resignation Speech
Fife makes it sound as though, for the good of the state, he's gracefully bowing out to "enter private life."
Best Spin by the Vanquished:
Tells reporters, "If this were a football game, we'd be home and won." Yeah, and the Arizona Cardinals won the Super Bowl last year.
Best Antidotes for Fifitis:
David Schindler, John Dougherty, Mike Manning
Best Faux Pas: Fife's Letter of Resignation
He writes to Secretary of State Jane Dee Hull: "It has been my pleasure to have served."
Earth to Fife: You're not done serving.
Best Suggested Prison Name for Fife: "Laverne"
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.