Long May He Serve

Commentators gnashed their teeth and wrung their hands when Governor J. Fife Symington III was convicted last week on seven felony counts, but the rest of us rather enjoyed ourselves. I mean, before Symington, who amongst us could actually say we knew a bank robber?

Yet we all know the blue blood Fife and his family. Hell, we elected him governor twice.

The Symingtons have become a Southwestern version of the Kennedy clan, a teensy bit degenerate around the edges, but graduates of all the right schools and ordained to lead.

Born with a silver spoon in his yap, Fife set out to swipe the rest of the service.

Symington, heir to the Frick steel fortune, not only conned investors, partners, bankers and pensioners, he also ransacked his own mother's checking account. (Just wondering: What sort of spermatozoa produce a boy who robs his mother blind, thereby forcing the old girl to have the family solicitor dun Fife on her behalf?)

Symington's complicitous wife, Ann, stood by his side throughout the trial. A co-swindler of elderly pensioners, the subverter of campaign-finance law, she is a courtly and portly enabler who now pays the bills.

Heiress to the Olin chemical trusts, Ann was a fixture in the courtroom in her garish Versace knockoffs. What is the point of graduating from Miss Porter's finishing academy if you still insist upon dressing in resort togs so outlandish that you look like a wreath at a Mob funeral?

And the Symington children, public urinaters, melon traders and trust funders one and all. The youngsters have jetted about Europe on mummy's money. They've used poppa's influence, and the state jet, to enhance business deals in Mexico rubbing elbows with that country's rulers. In the end, the kids seemed so brave when the jury told their pater, Thou shalt not steal.

So of course we gossiped about the Symingtons after the verdict.
Across town in the country clubs, the well-to-do were woebegone. Princess Diana, dead. Mother Teresa, dead. Fife Symington, convicted. All in the same week. Had a second French revolution begun while everyone was on the back nine?

Folks wondered if Fife would actually do jail time. Yes, Symington had pillaged millions from savings accounts and pensions of the retired. But nearly all conceded that the governor's manners were exquisite.

Arizona's next wave of civic leaders discovered new pools of sanctimonious gas as they contemplated Fife's incarceration.

Please, in the name of world peace, no jail time for Symington, urged gubernatorial hopeful Eddie Basha.

Symington's successor, Jane Hull, said Fife's loss of office was penalty enough. She agreed with her Democratic rival, Basha, that jail time for Symington was . . . simply unthinkable.

But not to me.
On May 20, in the midst of the Symington trial, Phoenix police ventilated bank robber Todd William Staskal with numerous bullet holes, killing the thief. Staskal, a construction worker, turned to crime after a ruinous divorce and child-support payments he could not make. That's what happens to bank robbers.

But in the governor's case, Basha and Hull want Symington absolved because Fife had to resign his office and therefore he no longer gets to be the most powerful man in Arizona, and do the rest of us have any idea how much that must hurt?

Mexicans crossing the border ought to forget about learning English until they absorb this parable about life in El Norte: In America, if you are the sort of mo-ron who sticks up a bank and is videotaped so that everyone can identify you, and if you are then covered in exploding dye so that even strangers can't help but notice you, and you then drive away with peanuts for loot, you will be hunted down like the Hantavirus. You are too stupid to be allowed to breed anymore and you will be exterminated.

On the other hand, if you have every advantage that life can offer, and you go to Harvard and you figure out how to swindle banks out of hundreds of millions of dollars and trigger the nearly billion-dollar collapse of a savings and loan with your fraud, you get to retire as a terribly embarrassed senior statesman. Maybe later you can sit on the board of the Goldwater Institute, but not now. Don't even ask.

Politicians like Hull and Basha are voodoo nurses who want to choke chickens on the malarial ward instead of swat mosquitoes.

Hull, of course, is trying to pull together fellow Republicans shattered by Symington's 17-week trial. She is also trying to suck-head with the gumbo element of the GOP, that rich criminal stew of developers, bankers, real estate speculators, appraisers, accountants and builders who finance Republican campaigns and see no problem with the governor's behavior because, hey, they made their pile doing the same thing as Symington.

And Basha has the cojones that God gave Pee-wee Herman. He refused to discuss Symington's record of banking fraud, pension looting and bid-rigging when the two faced off at the polls in 1994. The rotund grocer insisted on running on his record as an amiable bag-boy and consequently had his ass handed to him on election night by the crooked Symington.

But Hull and Basha weren't the only ones speaking out. Everywhere you turned, civic leaders went on record with their best Boutros Boutros-Ghali impersonation: "Oh, dear, this is a black day for Arizona. Pray that this does not tarnish our reputation nationally. Tell everyone you know back East that it doesn't snow in Phoenix. Let's not dwell on these sad events. We must move forward."

Black day, my behind.
Symington's conviction was cause for celebration.
When the verdict was announced, I knew where I had to go. I dressed my sons and drove to Symington's most infamous project, the Ritz-Carlton hotel at the Esplanade. I explained to the 8-year-old and his kid brother that this was a historic day.

Despite all of the legal observers and the journalists, who believed to a person that the banking-fraud allegations and the 1,400 exhibits were too complex for a jury of ordinary citizens to comprehend, Symington was convicted. It took years, but justice, Arizona's lonesome dove, prevailed. Salute.

I gave the boys a book of matches and turned them loose in the lobby of the Ritz. I headed into the saloon for a celebratory scotch.

Inside the bar, lawyers, private investigators, writers and editors indulged in cigars and booze. As the night wobbled on, George Leckie appeared in the doorway of the Ritz and graciously accepted an invitation to join us.

The governor's former chief of staff, Leckie was indicted for his part in the multimillion-dollar Project SLIM bid-rigging affair. Though Leckie and the governor's accountants, Coopers & Lybrand, paid almost $800,000 in civil penalties to settle the state's claim, Leckie was acquitted in his federal criminal trial.

Leckie told us he owed his freedom to his judge's belief in the First Amendment.

Leckie, who is no threat even to Clarence Thomas as a constitutional scholar, escaped jail because the prosecution's star witness, John Yeoman, died in an accident right before the trial.

Still, no one quibbled with Leckie. The man has survived virulent throat cancer, losing so much weight that his head protrudes from his shirt collar like a matchstick poking out of a pillowcase.

Calling Judge Roger Strand, who presided over Symington's trial, "a fucking wimp," the unflappable Leckie concluded his visit by taking several hits off a Cuban cigar. Everyone at the table toasted his continued recovery, and yes, his cheek.

The next morning, the community throbbed with a familiar refrain.
"Hopefully, this [the Symington conviction] puts the whole issue behind us and puts an end to the state's real estate problems of the 1980s," said John Ogden, president of Suncor, the disgraced development arm of Arizona's largest utility.

The head of Arizona tourism, Tom Silverman, crossed his fingers and said he expected the snowbirds to continue flocking to our desert climes.

"We now need to look forward," offered Steve Roman, a senior vice president with Bank One Arizona. "Arizona has a bright future and will move along."

Of course, Arizona's pious oatmeal eaters find the future bright, particularly when compared to the state's dark past.

In the past 30 years, Arizona has displayed a stunning capacity for public defilement and official larceny: land-fraud king Ned Warren, dynamited reporter Don Bolles, local corruption exposed over months in the nationally syndicated IRE series, impeached governor Evan Mecham, the AzScam bribery, world-class swindler Charles Keating and his public apologists senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini (40 percent of the Keating Five), indicted bankers and developers Gary Driggs and Conley Wolfswinkel, Symington's Project SLIM bid-rigging scandal, which was separate from the governor's 22-count federal indictments for such indiscretions as bank fraud, wire fraud, perjury and attempted extortion.

And after every single example of criminality, Arizona's leaders have declared a new day was dawning. We have swept so many scandals under the rug that the state carpet looks like a topo map of the McDowell Mountains.

Arizonans are so accustomed to felonious behavior that we are comatose in its presence: Jurors who convicted Symington turned around and said they'd vote for him again if he ran for office. Does that sound like a new day dawning to you?

We can put this conviction behind us if we face it squarely. We can draw a line in the sand and say that we will not tolerate public corruption.

J. Fife Symington III must sit in a federal penitentiary, one of those minimum-security lockups where sophisticated white-collar criminals do soft time. Others who would violate the public trust must think of Symington staring across that manicured prison yard at another felon, a buffed investment banker, who locks eyes with Fife and croons to our former governor that marvelous George Gershwin lyric, "Bess, you is my woman . . .


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