ONLY THE ROTTEN SMELL IS REAL
J. Fife Symington III will go down in state history as a hypocrite of outrageous proportions. He is a sanctimonious charlatan, an absurd mountebank and a poseur. Oh, yes, he's also a fake and a phony.
Aside from this rather considerable list of personal foibles, I see no reason Symington can't run again for governor of Arizona.
Oh, yes, perhaps there is one roadblock. A pretty big one at that, too.
The best political story of the decade has now gone past the whispering stage.
Wherever you go these days, political observers keep asking the same question about Symington:
"When will the feds announce J. Fife's indictment? Are the Democrats running the Department of Justice timing the indictment so the Republicans can't get a strong candidate to run against Terry Goddard?"
No savvy politician doubts Symington will be forced to face the music for his role in the Esplanade scheme that saw him extract millions from the now-defunct Southwest Savings and Loan even as he sat on its board of directors.
In a suit seeking $197 million from Symington and his fellow Southwest directors, the Resolution Trust Corporation cited Symington as a man who reaped "millions of dollars in unwarranted revenue."
For weeks now, a parade of witnesses has streamed into the grand jury room in the downtown federal building to tell under oath what they know about Symington and his tangled web of business dealings.
The news that keeps filtering out is not good for Symington.
For example, we were treated to some remarkable revelations in a column by New Times executive editor Michael Lacey in early February. They speculated about the testimony of Joyce Reibel, Symington's longtime executive secretary.
Lacey obtained a 15-page report written by Ivan Mathew, Reibel's attorney. The report detailed questioning by federal investigators that suggested Symington may have used deceitful bookkeeping stratagems to obtain loans and run his business.
Reibel was Symington's secretary all during the Reaganaut Eighties--the great years of looting by hard-charging real estate entrepreneurs like Charles Keating.
Questions put to her indicated the feds suspect that in making out his financial statements, Symington not only lied about his income, but inflated the value of his holdings and failed to include debts and obligations.
Financial statements were the coin of the realm during the Eighties. Present an impressive financial statement and you could get into any business venture. Once on the inside, you were almost assured of walking away with a profit.
That is the way business was done.
However, in order to prevent people from slipping through by sheer chicanery, the government instituted a tough set of laws it assumed would intimidate people from risking that route.
Knowingly falsifying financial statements is a felony and can be punishable by as much as 30 years and a fine of $1 million for each infraction.
Here is a sample of some of the things Joyce Reibel said when she was questioned months before appearing in front of the federal grand jury.
1. She was shown two Symington financial statements. In one, he was the guarantor of a $4 million loan. In a second statement, made to Valley National Bank, the $4 million loan was missing.
Reibel was asked to explain the discrepancy. She revealed a remarkable thing. Reibel said that upon instructions from either Symington or his accountants, Coopers & Lybrand, she would have either added or deleted the $4 million figure.
2. Reibel admitted she had seen paperwork for a $300,000 loan Symington had obtained from his mother, but that this debt was missing from his 1989 financial statement.
3. She also admitted knowing that when Symington claimed in a financial statement that he made $200,000 from the Symington Company in 1987, this figure was inflated.
4. Prosecutors clearly suspect that Symington instituted a coding system so that debts were added or subtracted to financial statements depending on where the statements were going.
Remarkable, isn't it? Who would ever have thought Symington was such a risk taker?
@body:And now that classic bumbler, George Leckie, is back in the picture. The last time I remember Symington's close pal's activities being recounted in print was during Leckie's unfortunate encounter with a Paradise Valley citizen. That occurred under cover of darkness and ended with Leckie fleeing the scene of an accident.
But people like Leckie never really go away. After public outcry forced Leckie's resignation from his $100,000-a-year job as Symington's aide, he went into public relations.
But he kept hanging around the statehouse and assuring everyone that he was still very much in the picture.
Are you surprised that Leckie's new office is in Symington's Esplanade building? And would you be astonished to learn that he is still the man to see if you want anything from the Symington administration?
Last week, the Arizona Republic uncovered a juicy story about Leckie. Appearances suggest that Leckie had connived with another Symington favorite, the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm, so it would win a $1.5 million bid to run Project SLIM back in 1991.
None of this seems surprising. After all, they were all old teammates. John Yeoman, the Coopers & Lybrand official that Leckie contacted, had been Symington's campaign treasurer and his personal accountant. Leckie was Symington's right-hand man.
Fortunately for the Symington gang, Leckie, the governor's chief of staff, had been strategically placed on the contract selection committee.
Did it matter to Leckie that he and the nine other members of the committee had taken an oath not to contact any of the applicants during the election process?
What do you think?
So last week when the Republic ran its story, it also ran a log of Leckie's phone calls showing that he actually had the effrontery to make his calls directly to Yeoman both at his home and office within minutes of important meetings held by the selection committee.
Coopers & Lybrand's original bid had been for $1.97 million. After Leckie called his pal, Coopers & Lybrand dropped its bid by a whopping $400,000 and walked away with this plum state contract.
Poor Leckie. What did he ever stand to gain if Coopers & Lybrand got the contract? Symington's fingerprints seem to be all over this one. We can bet, too, who exposed this deal. It had to be one of the losing bidders who went about doing their own detective work. They lost money and they didn't want Symington to think he could get away with it.
As usual, you can depend on Symington for a fanciful twist. He gets himself all puffed up and announces that he will hold an impartial investigation of the matter.
But instead of passing the investigation on to the Attorney General's Office, Symington takes a giant leap. He passes the matter to the County Attorney's Office and into the lap of Rick Romley. Who cares that Romley's office is unequipped to handle the case? Actually, that's better for everyone involved.
It doesn't matter to Symington that state statutes clearly call for him to bring the matter to the Attorney General's Office.
Symington says he doesn't trust Grant Woods to run the investigation. He considers Woods to be a political enemy. He's right about that. But then again, anyone with a conscience should be Symington's political enemy.
But since when do the thieves of the world decide which police agency they will hire? The last time I saw Symington declaim in this area, he was boasting he would give up golf and spend the rest of his life investigating the RTC.
Anyone who catches Symington in a lie becomes his lifelong enemy. The list keeps building as Symington keeps talking.
Fortunately, a suit filed in California against Coopers & Lybrand holds many of the secrets remaining in the contract-awarding matter.
It was filed by a former marketing manager for Coopers & Lybrand, Ronald Vincellette of Paradise Valley. Vincellette claims he deserves the commission for landing the SLIM contract.
Are you ready for this?
Coopers & Lybrand is refusing to give Vincellette his commission, maintaining the firm won it as a result of information it got from Leckie.
Here's another surprising development. Until now, the depositions in this California civil case have been sealed at the request of Coopers & Lybrand's lawyers.
They told the judge that if anyone reads the depositions, they will learn Coopers & Lybrand's "trade secrets."
By now we already know two of their trade secrets. One is named Fife Symington. The other is George Leckie.
Is it any wonder that Symington wants Romley investigating the case rather than Woods? Romley and Symington have become a dynamic duo.
If Symington is indicted while there is still time for Woods to jump into the race, Woods will run for governor. If Woods jumps ship, Romley will run for attorney general.
This story concludes as it began. We have still another slick Symington deal to reward his friends and cronies. And once again, we have the picture of a sitting governor backed into the corner by his own misdeeds.
I wonder if there is anyone who feels the slightest bit of compassion for J. Fife Symington III.
Everything about his role in public life has been phony from the start. This is the smooth-talking Harvard man who would bring the acumen of a businessman to the governor's ninth-floor office.
He would bring with him the sharp, secretive methods that he boasted made him such a success in the private sector.
It's all in the open for everyone to see now. Symington is bankrupt, both morally and financially. He is a sitting governor who must keep looking over his shoulder, waiting for the dread news from the federal grand jury room.
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