MORE

Castle Creep

In chess, one player may be able to position his pieces to win in a set number of moves, regardless of the countermoves made by his opponent. Once this position is reached, skill and experience are meaningless. There is simply no way the opponent can protect his king from capture, or checkmate. Both players usually recognize this "forcing mate" situation and agree to forgo the remaining moves. The loser tips his king on its side, a signal of dignified resignation.

After his federal indictment last week, Fife Symington the Third, King of Arizona, faces forced checkmate. His response has not been dignified. He has eschewed resignation, insisting that his few remaining pawns will somehow forge victory against the legion of castles, knights and bishops a federal prosecutor commands. He has ignored his opponent's most powerful piece--the Queen of Facts--which is capable of attacking from all directions. He has complained that his opponent drew out the game longer than necessary. At the same time, the King of Arizona has claimed to welcome the opportunity to play out his desperate denouement.

It will be entertaining to watch Fife III struggle. It is the type of entertainment offered by PBS nature documentaries that show slow-motion lions stalking, then slaughtering wildebeests. Even when the outcome is certain, there is drama to the hunt.

But Arizona is not a monarchy, and self-governance ought not be merely a series of atavistic slaughters. This high-stakes chess game--USA vs. King Fife III--should never have started. This King could and would have been deposed long ago--by his own subjects--if they had been informed of the true scope of his wrongdoing.

That they were not so informed ought to be the enduring shame of the press, the prosecutors and the Democratic leadership of Arizona, all of whom should have been indicted last week along with Fife III. The charges: Cowardice. Laziness. Dishonesty. Incompetence.

Most of the 23 criminal charges the federal government filed against Fife Symington last week center on his propensity to lie about important fiscal matters. The government charges him with submitting false financial statements to institutions that had lent money to his development company for a variety of projects, most of which failed. For example, federal investigators allege that Symington gave one lender a financial statement stating he was worth $5.3 million in December 1990, told another he was $4.1 million in the hole and informed a third lender he did not even have a statement for December 1990.

This reflex for telling whopping falsehoods on paper has been, or should have been, well-known to Arizona's opinion leaders for some time.

One of the federal counts accuses the governor of attempted extortion, alleging he used his office to bully pension funds that had lent money for the Mercado development downtown.

Although the term "extortion" did not see wide use until last week, Symington's problems at the Mercado have certainly been no secret. We have written lengthy stories detailing the governor's sleazy attempts to avoid repaying a $10 million loan made by union pension funds.

The federal government continues to investigate the alleged rigging of bids for Project SLIM, a cost-cutting program of state government. The governor's personal accountants, Coopers & Lybrand, received SLIM contracts through an extraordinarily screwy bidding process.

That process has not been hidden, either. Reams of public documents detailing the greased bids have long been available to anyone with the time and interest to review them.

And the list of other Symington chicanery stretches from here to Prescott.
So if most of the substance behind the indictments--and more--has been known or knowable for years, why is it only now that there is a serious level of uproar about Fife Symington's activities?

One explanation, of course, has to do with the group of see, hear-and-speak-no-evil sluggards known as the Phoenix news media.

When I came to Arizona three years ago, it quickly became clear to me that the major news media in this town were doggedly avoiding negative stories about Fife Symington, and helping the governor spin negative stories that could not be avoided to his best advantage. This dereliction of journalistic duty--evinced most thoroughly by the Arizona Republic--puzzled and, eventually, angered me.

Over time, though, I began to see that it wasn't just the Republic that was afraid to confront Fife Symington with his own malfeasance. As more and more information about Symington's unethical activities became public--much of it through the efforts of New Times' John Dougherty--individuals and institutions outside the press who had a responsibility to face Symington's ethical bankruptcy head-on showed little interest in doing so.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is responsible for prosecuting state criminal offenses. He has done less than nothing about his corrupt king. His "investigation" of Project SLIM found no criminal wrongdoing. A subsequent federal probe brought indictments against two of Symington's closest confidants. Yet no one in the mainstream press has asked whether Romley is willfully blinkered or simply incompetent. The prevailing excuse seems to be: Well, what do you expect? Symington and Romley are allies. Do you really expect that a county attorney would honor his oath of office rather than protect a crony?  

Attorney General Grant Woods has played a fine political game, speaking out here and there against Symington sleazery but doing very little to stop it. Yes, his office investigated Project SLIM--after Romley's people had blanched--and obtained civil settlements. But the AG's Office did not pursue documentary evidence suggesting that Symington was smack in the middle of the SLIM bid-rigging, and it has not undertaken serious investigation of any of the myriad other apparent crimes Symington has committed. On the contrary, Woods gave the governor one of the best gifts he could ever hope for--an opinion full of extraordinary legal reasoning that let the governor escape prosecution for laundering more than $1 million of his wife's and mother's money into his election campaigns.

And what about the loyal opposition? The Arizona Democratic party should have been one of Symington's toughest and most consistent critics. Instead, it has been a disgrace to the art of politics. Since 1992, the Democrats have given Symington a virtual free ride. Seeking an occasional slurp of legislative gruel from the Republican majority, statehouse Democrats held their tongues in the face of overwhelming, mounting evidence that the state was run by a scamster. Eddie Basha, the most recent Democratic gubernatorial candidate, decided to run an entire campaign without once even hinting that his opponent was a documented grifter. As Terry Goddard admitted recently, "There wasn't anybody saying, 'What's the Democratic party position on this?' We're not that organized."

The ineffectuality of Arizona's prosecutors and opposition party in the face of the Fife Symington Problem is linked with the incompetence, cowardice and corruptive nature of the state's mainstream news media. As Arizona's largest newspaper, the Republic bears much of the blame for the collapse of any indigenous form of public integrity enforcement in the state.

In the wake of the Ev Mecham fiasco, Republic management decided that Fife Symington was its man and supported him shamelessly, regardless of evidence that he was unfit to serve. The paper poleaxed Terry Goddard when he attempted to raise Symington's financial problems as an issue in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign. The Phoenix Gazette, the small afternoon cousin of the Republic, provided initial coverage of the governor's debt difficulties. But the story was not developed from there, and the Republic/Gazette used a blitz of editorials to make minor Goddard miscues seem equivalent to huge and obvious irregularities in Symington's fiscal affairs.

Subsequent discoveries show that Goddard was remarkably on target with his criticisms; Symington should not have been allowed to run and win that initial race as a successful businessman, because he was not one. Because Goddard was right, the Republic crucified him.

Since then, the Republic's attempts to cover for Symington have been numerous and astonishing. Stories have been jimmied and spun upside down. Reporters were told--literally--to keep their hands off the governor. The paper covered the entire 1994 gubernatorial election with scarcely a whisper about the mounting evidence of Symington's felonious tendencies--and subsequently opined about how amazing Symington was for defusing the political problem his fiscal dilemma might have become.

And then, of course, there was that fine journalistic moment during the last gubernatorial campaign when the Republic, in its news pages, described the governor as a Teutonic knight.

The results of this blind Symington support were, at times, comically predictable.

When Grant Woods said something unflattering about Fife, we could count on a nasty front-page story about the attorney general within the week.

Did Rick Romley clear the governor of wrongdoing? That's worth at least six months of slavering Republic support.

So the governor declared personal bankruptcy, stiffing creditors for $24 million? We'll headline the story, "I've Lost Everything."

For half a decade, the Arizona Republic did all it could to present Fife Symington as something he was not. And the paper punished anyone who had the temerity to suggest that the King had no clothes.

Then, four days after the federal government came into town and indicted the threadbare monarch, the Republic turned. Last Sunday, the state's largest newspaper editorialized that Symington should leave office. Without irony, the newspaper counseled him to resign in "the best interests of the state and its people."

The scene is appropriate to the prosecution of a bankrupt developer: an entire unfinished floor in an undistinguished office building that might have been some failed S&L's idea of a good loan risk. The bare concrete floor seems to stretch for blocks. A good 30 percent of the tiles are missing from a suspended ceiling. Along one wall is a podium, backed by Justice Department and FBI seals, and the state and national flags. Along with a smattering of national reporters, the full, pathetic mass of the Phoenix press corps sits tamely in rows of chairs. Behind it, an arc of 17 television cameras.  

To begin the show, U.S. Attorney Nora Manella of California, small and trim and witty, reels off the series of criminal frauds and lies Symington is alleged to have perpetrated over the past decade. The head of the Phoenix FBI explains why the investigation took several years to complete. Then the Phoenix press starts asking questions, and the special part of the event begins.

Oh, the pit-bull aggression, the terrier determination, the intellectual rigor of these journalistic warriors. The Tribune's Mark Flatten starts off, spouting a truly loony query that implies the timing of Symington's 23-count indictment was, through some American Spectator type of conspiracy, linked to the conviction of Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker. Manella seems puzzled, responds vaguely. Then the local TV children jump in, chests puffed out in their pinstriped suits, shouting loud, foolish questions over one another, unintentional parodies of a post-lobotomy Sam Donaldson. Phoenix FBI spokesmen step to the sides of the lectern, attempting to guide the questions away from the video screamers. Other queries are made--a couple so far off-point that Manella has to confess she does not understand them--and then the TV types try shouting their way into prominence again. The gathering sputters to an end, questions having elicited virtually no information not contained in the indictment and Manella's statement.

The coverage that follows is precisely as puffed up, as essentially phony as the behavior at the government's press conference. At the press conference, reporters representing news outlets that have ignored or misrepresented or defended Fife Symington's conduct for years present themselves as snarling watchdogs. Over the next few days, their voluminous reports convey the image of a serious press intent on examining every nook and cranny of the Symington legacy.

Suffusing this mass of rather superficial reporting is a theme. Newspapers and television reports repeatedly bemoan the national shame the indictment of Symington will bring to the state, coming just eight short years after the impeachment of Evan Mecham. Our state has been victimized again. How ever will we cope with his ignominy?

I genuinely hope that Arizona is embarrassed fully and nationally in coming months. A state deserves to be shamed if it tolerates newspaper managers and prosecutors and opposition leaders who worry about public integrity only when provided with the imprimatur of federal indictments. I would not mind if the shame lasts for months.

It probably will.
The final stage in a game of chess is known as the endgame. Often, this phase of play is subtle, tense, elegant; one miscue and the opponent gains irreversible advantage. But the endgame King Fife the Third will play is not going to be much of a contest; he will resign or be politically and legally checkmated.

Either way, however, he is likely to remain on the throne for at least a few months. If he opts to tough it out and stand trial, the discovery process will probably push his day in court into next year. A resignation decision probably will not come until the utter isolation of federal indictment sinks in, the money to pay lawyers becomes scarce, the prospect of prison seems suddenly, astonishingly real, and the likelihood of acquittal on 23 highly documented felony charges appears as small as it really is. Past experience with ethically challenged pols suggests that process will take four to six months.

Perhaps the opinion-makers of Phoenix will use that time to decide whether they will begin doing their jobs honestly, or continue to watch bloody coups well into the future.

--Mecklin


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >