Criminal With an Asterisk

Sweet deal: former Governor turned pastry chef Fife
René Milot

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.

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John M. Dowd, Symington's Washington, D.C., mouthpiece, wrote in a letter demanding that Sweet's review be withdrawn from New Times' Web site, retracted and apologized for.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.  

Good for business, good for Fife's image -- which is what Dowd has toiled so long to preserve. Which is what his demand letter's all about. Dowd's putting everybody on notice that calling Symington a criminal, or even a crook, won't be tolerated any more in this fair world. Maybe Dowd was joking (though he doesn't strike anybody I talked to as much of a kidder), but he wrote in one e-mail -- presumably because Sweet's column is on the Internet -- that he might "proceed with action in the High Court in London, U.K." if New Times didn't retract and beg Fife's forgiveness.

It's no understatement to say that Dowd has most of those in the know about Fife's legal morass scared quoteless. And all but one of those who would talk were unwilling to attach their names to this column -- that is, to get between the famously nasty Dowd and his lawsuit threat against New Times with for-attribution observations.

"Now, you can't quote me by name, because Dowd might go after anybody who so much as sneezes in Fife's direction," says one such cautious Democratic party stalwart who worked with the (cough) law-and-order Republican when he was governor. "But it's all about cleaning up Fife's image. The guy's so egotistical that nobody puts it past him to run for governor again. He once was touted as a presidential contender, for Christ's sake! He considered running for Congress a few years ago. There's nothing legally to stop him, as [Dowd's demand letter] illustrates. [Dowd's] pointing out that because Fife's criminal convictions were reversed on a technicality and because President Clinton unconscionably pardoned him, he's not a crook and a criminal technically under the law. But if you've lived [in Arizona] since the early '90s [and] read the paper, well. . . . Look up criminal in the dictionary."

According to Webster's, a criminal is "one who has committed a crime" or "a person who has been convicted of a crime."

Here's the nutshell of what happened in Symington's criminal case:

After a trial that lasted 13 weeks and included 35 witnesses and more than 1,300 exhibits, the then-governor was convicted on September 3, 1997, of seven felony counts of bank and wire fraud for knowingly submitting false financial documents to three lenders. Evidence and testimony showed Fife knew his net worth had plummeted to negative $23 million by May 1991 -- yet he continued to tell a Japanese bank and Valley National Bank (now Bank One) that he was worth more than $4 million. Symington needed to maintain a net worth of at least $4 million to avoid a default declaration on loans used to pay for construction of his marquee project, the $200 million Camelback Esplanade (yes, the very same place where he now cooks up desserts instead of phony financial statements).

Symington was also convicted of misrepresenting his financial state to a consortium of union pension funds when he personally guaranteed repayment of a $10 million loan for the downtown Mercado retail and office development. Prosecutors showed he hid from the pension funds negative financial information when he submitted a sworn December 31, 1989, financial statement claiming $11.9 million in net worth.

Two days after the verdicts, he resigned in disgrace as governor. One count involving Valley National Bank was later dismissed by U.S. District Judge Roger B. Strand, who in February 1998 sentenced Symington to 30 months in prison.

Fife posted bond and avoided serving prison time while his criminal conviction was on appeal. On June 22, 1999, the federal appeals court reversed the convictions, ruling that Strand erred in dismissing a juror in the midst of deliberations.

But about that appellate ruling that initially saved Fife's baking (er, bacon) . . . even as the Ninth Circuit threw out the convictions, it noted that there was enough evidence during the criminal trial to support his conviction on at least three counts.

To boot, judging from court records on file in federal court here, the government was considering refiling the six reversed counts, and had left the door open to possibly pursue some of the 11 additional counts on which the trial jury had deadlocked. A status conference on the case had been scheduled between January 29-31, 2001.  

This, of course, pours cold water on Dowd's contention that "the United States chose not to pursue the charges" after the appeals court ruling.

The charges were being pursued, all right. Moreover, sources say Fife (who'd told Dougherty he didn't relish another criminal trial) was ready to enter a guilty plea on one count of bank fraud when Clinton pardoned him along with 139 others (including brother Roger, Patricia Hearst Shaw, Marc Rich and Henry Cisneros) on January 20, 2001, the last day of his presidency. One source claims Fife went so far as to actually sign a plea agreement on the one count, but Dowd declared recently in a telephone interview from beside the Potomac, "We never signed anything." He added, "The correct way to say it is, we were in discussions [with federal attorneys] about a plea agreement . . . but we hadn't accepted the [government's] offer."

Symington didn't return phone calls to Franco's Italian Caffé seeking comment.

Now -- one more time -- about that claim that the government wasn't interested in prosecuting Fife anymore . . .

"That's simply not true," says a source close to the case. "[Federal prosecutors] had every intention of establishing his guilt legally. Clinton pulled the plug on that. Fife Symington was the luckiest [legally troubled big-time public official] in American politics."

The point is well taken, though Fife's got to be several notches down on that scale from Bill Clinton, who's been slicker than one of Symington's Teflon baking pans to federal prosecutors trying to make criminal allegations stick. In fact, several Arizona political insiders speculate that it was the Yale law school-educated Arkansas peckerwood's own brushes with the Justice Department that prompted him to save a fellow Ivy Leaguer (Fife majored in Dutch art history at Harvard) under federal fire. The pardon came after Dowd submitted a 30-page-plus clemency plea to Clinton, the contents of which Big John has refused to reveal. (It couldn't be that this have-mercy letter was helped along by connections, could it? Clinton pal and ex-National Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan and former Democratic National Committee chairman Robert S. Strauss are colleagues of Dowd's at Akin Gump. Jordan was chairman of the Clinton Presidential Transition Team in '92. Strauss is one of two senior executive partners at the high-dollar law firm.)

Speaking of privileged characters looking out for each other, a story Symington likes to tell sheds a different light on why the Democratic president most famous for getting blown by a White House intern may have himself decided to fellate a right-wing Republican in Barry Goldwater country by giving him a legal free pass. The last repetition of the yarn was included in the recent New York Times feature story (whose bottom line was: Shezam, the infamous onetime governor of Arizona's wearing a kitchen smock instead of a prison smock these days). Fife's Bill Clinton tale goes like this:

Once upon a time in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Bill and Fife met. It was 30 years ago. One summer day, Bill paddled out too far, got caught in a riptide and Symington had to swim out to save him. The fact that he once beached the man who became such a whale in the Democratic party has caused Fife endless ribbing over the years, he told the Times. "The joke around [Arizona] was always, You saved Bill Clinton's life,'" Fife was quoted as saying. "I always told them, It was the Christian thing to do.'"

In that same article, in which Symington's cooking exploits are typically extolled, the writer lobbed the ignominious ex-governor a softball: "Even when he is in baking apron and chef's hat, Mr. Symington says, his mind is never far from politics. He applauds President Bush for the military action in Iraq. He says Arizona's new governor, Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has done a good job so far. But let's see how she is in four years,' he said. Was he hinting at a return to politics?"

Hitting it out of the park, Fife responded, "Being governor is a great job. It's always possible, I guess. To say the door is closed, no. There's a chance I could get back in it. But I'm happy doing what I'm doing now. I'm not pining away for another job in politics. Still, you never know in life what's going to happen."

Helping him out financially in any such future political endeavor would no doubt be his wife, Ann (heiress to the Olin Chemical fortune), who has stood by him, sources say, through tribulations both political and domestic. It's Ann who's said to be behind Fife's current business interests and who's cushioned him from his hefty legal bills over the years (well-fed lawyers like Dowd don't come cheap). But Symington's always been lucky with the old ladies.  

Symington's verdict and two-and-a-half-year prison sentence were vacated because the Ninth Circuit disagreed with Judge Strand's removal of Mary Jane Cotey, who fellow jurors complained was (to put it mildly) inattentive during the trial. No matter how much the evidence stacked up against Symington, the jurors said, the then-74-year-old Cotey insisted she couldn't vote to convict because Fife came across as such a good man. Cotey was replaced by an alternate, and the jury voted to put Symington in prison stripes.

"If not for the bad luck of having that nutty old gal on the jury, Clinton wouldn't have needed to get into the act," the afore-quoted Democrat recalls. "And nobody would be worrying about whether Fife would be getting [back into the act politically].

"And if you believe what went on in the bankruptcy trial," the official says, "I couldn't imagine how he could finance [any future political campaign] without Ann's money."

Ah, the bankruptcy trial.

Five years after Symington filed papers claiming he was broke, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George B. Nielsen ruled that the $10 million loan from a consortium of union pension funds used to help finance the Mercado couldn't be eliminated. The pension funds' management was the only entity to attempt to block Fife from discharging debts that stemmed from his local real estate development days. It was hard for many to understand how a trust-fund baby from a rich East Coast family -- Symington's the great-grandson of Henry Clay Frick, one of the richest men in the world early in the 20th century -- could be busted. Even if all his money was used up, couldn't his wife be held accountable? The answer was no; it was established during the bankruptcy proceeding that Ann Symington's megabucks were legally separate.

Asked whether Fife ever paid back the money, Michael Manning, attorney for the pension funds, says: not exactly. As has been the case several times in his life, Fife's getting bailed out. In this case, the Arizona taxpayers he royally disappointed have lent a helping hand.

"We've made him open his kimono and show us that he didn't have any [personal] money hidden with his wife or a child," says Manning. Money to satisfy some of the debt was extracted from public coffers when the Mercado was sold to ASU, and the rest, Manning says, "will be recovered the day he inherits money from an elderly uncle in Long Island. We've [attached] the inheritance. It should all add up to in excess of $10 million."

Asked if the word criminal can be used to describe a government official like Symington who's been convicted, had his conviction reversed on a technicality and been pardoned by a U.S. president, Manning stumbles. Then, he adds, "Fife Symington was found guilty of civil fraud by [bankruptcy] Judge Nielsen."

Help us out here, John Dowd. Though your client definitely isn't a criminal before the "bar of justice" (as you lawyers like to say), haven't his sins been egregious enough that making an issue of a legal technicality is just a tad transparent? While you're attempting to spin a revisionist history re your client, he's capitalizing on his bad-boy past. On a recent visit to the excellent Franco's (which, ironically, is beside the bar Nixon's), a member of the wait staff let on, "Almost everybody who comes in here asks about Mr. Symington. They want to see the guy who was on TV every day during the trial." (The menu description of his Governor's cake is: "Low tax, high taste." Better would be: "So rich you want to convict" or "There's nothing bankrupt about this baby.") So the question is, would ex-criminal, former criminal or criminal with an asterisk be a better description for Fife? Fife's lawyer'sclaim harks back to the declaration of that even more reprehensible big-shot Republican just before he resigned from office under extreme duress.

By the way, the Fife Machine seems to have trained the lapdog Republic well. In the previously mentioned takeout about his pastry-chefing, there was nary a mention of Fife's former felonious past. He was merely referred to as the "former governor of Arizona." Neither were Symington's legal troubles mentioned in the daily's big story recently on the Esplanade. Okay, at the end of the Republic's tongue-in-the-ear review of Franco's new spot the other day, Howie Seftel did mention Fife's presidential pardon for the purpose of getting in this line: "Happily, Symington's desserts don't need pardoning."

Come on, the near-miss ball-and-chainer's not only using his infamy to pull patrons into his and Franco's joint and students into his cooking school, he's trying to flour over his image for who knows what political or business reasons. Then, when somebody remembers that a jury of citizens who can never hope to be Fife's economic peers (his bankruptcy notwithstanding) declares him a criminal, he whines like a little girl in an apron. Would any of us even so much as walk across Seventh Street to eat a Bundt cake baked by Jane Hull -- no matter how delicious the rendering? As always, the silver-spoon son of Martha Frick Symington wants to have his torte and eat it, too.  

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