SHAME AND FORTUNE
Towering trees line the twisting country lane leading to the top of Seminary Ridge in the horse country of Lutherville, Maryland.
At the crest of the hill, where Mays Chapel Road bears sharply to the left, lies an old wooden post marking the entrance to one of Baltimore County's few remaining country estates.
A gravel driveway heads east past a large, two-story, wood-frame workers' quarters, before curving to the south toward the carriage house, where painters are applying a coat of white.
The entrance way, now paved, becomes a tree-lined circular drive, slowly unveiling an expansive, two-story, white-brick Colonial home, graced by meticulously kept lawns at the rear and southern flank.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
It is the home where Arizona Governor John Fife Symington III spent his youth.
Symington has carefully shaped his opulent upbringing for consumption by Arizona voters. He's gone so far as to describe his childhood home as "a true farm."
"We used to make our own bacon and kill our own chickens," he has contended.
But a stroll around the Symington estate makes it clear that any slaughter on the gentleman's spread was done out of adventure, not necessity. After all, this is the estate where Martha Frick Symington raised her only son and three daughters.
One of four grandchildren of Henry Clay Frick, an industrial giant who created one of America's great fortunes 90 years ago, Martha Frick Symington never needed to bloody her hands for a meal.
Over the years, a portion of the immense wealth created by great-grandpa Frick has found its way to Governor Symington by way of four trust funds.
If you happen to be Symington, the trusts are wonderful places for the money to reside.
They allow the governor to legitimately tell his numerous creditors and potential creditors--including the government--that he's broke.
But Symington is broke only in the sense that his childhood estate is a "true farm." In reality, the governor is just a telephone call away from a significant nest egg created by the family of one of America's greatest capitalists.
Just call it the governor's good fortune.
@body:Henry Clay Frick wanted to leave a monument that the world would remember him by for decades, if not centuries, to come. So, in 1914, he built a fabulous house on 70th Street and Fifth Avenue on the upper east side of Manhattan, and then filled it with one of the world's great art collections.
Frick could afford it.
By 1901, he had amassed $55 million of stocks and bonds in U.S. Steel. He later controlled at least $42 million of securities in seven different railways. He cut deals with the Carnegies, Mellons, Rockefellers and Morgan.
He was the consummate capitalist. It was Frick who hired 300 Pinkerton guards to protect Carnegie's steel works, triggering a bloody riot during the infamous Homestead strike of 1892. During that altercation, the Pennsylvania National Guard was called in to remove 8,000 striking workers who had taken over the Homestead mill after Frick announced his intention to lower wages and replace union workers with nonunion employees.
Nine years later, Frick helped in the creation of U.S. Steel Corporation by negotiating a crucial agreement with John D. Rockefeller that allowed for the consolidation of competing firms.
Today, Frick is remembered most for his art collection.
The Frick Museum is one of New York's most beautiful and accessible galleries. On Frick's death in 1919, his home, the art collection, which includes works by Rembrandt, Whistler and El Greco, and a $15 million maintenance fund were given to a board of trustees to manage in perpetuity.
Frick lived the last years of his life in the house, designed by famous American architect Thomas Hastings, spending time with his two children, Helen and Childs, and four grandchildren. One of those grandchildren was Martha Frick Symington, the governor's mother.
It is through these children, and their children, that the remains of a vast American fortune have flowed to Arizona's sitting governor. The exact amounts of all the inheritances cannot be determined from public records. The precise terms under which J. Fife Symington III has received his nest egg also remain undisclosed. The governor declined to comment for this article.
By tracking what is publicly known of money flows in the Frick and Symington families, however, one thing can be ascertained: Governor Symington remains a child of wealth.
On his death, the industrialist Henry Clay Frick left one-sixth of his huge estate to his wife and two children. Published reports estimated the value of his daughter's inheritance at $38 million.
Like her father, Helen Frick left tens of millions of dollars to benefit the arts and public charities. She created the Pittsburgh-based Helen C. Frick Foundation in 1947, which by 1989 had assets of $65 million.
In 1981, Helen Frick sold the Frick Building in downtown Pittsburgh for $14 million and created a trust fund for the benefit of her niece, her nephew and 14 great-nieces and great-nephews.
One of those great-nephews is Governor Symington.
It is uncertain whether the governor received more from Helen Frick than a share of the building proceeds. Helen Frick noted that she limited her gifts to her family members at the time of the building sale because she had provided for them in the past.
Henry Clay Frick's son, Childs Frick, also was left a sizable fortune upon the death of his father.
Childs Frick was a noted amateur paleontologist, art collector and inventor. On his death in 1965, he donated the world's largest collection of mammal fossils--more than 250,000 specimens--to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Childs Frick left most of his estate--valued at $24 million at the time of his death--to his grandchildren, one of whom is Governor Symington. Before distribution to the relatives, that $24 million was diminished by nearly $16 million in state and federal inheritance taxes.
According to Childs Frick's will, Governor Symington received at least $330,000 in trust funds from the final distribution of the estate. Most of the money came in the form of Mellon Bank stock.
Like his sister, Childs Frick contributed additional funds to his grandchildren's trust accounts on several occasions prior to his death, probate documents show.
Childs Frick's four children, including the governor's mother, received no significant distributions at the time of his death. Childs Frick noted in his will that his children already were of "independent means."
But the governor's mother, Martha Frick Symington, did receive $301,000 in 1966 from the estate of Childs Frick's wife, Frances Dixon Frick.
There is insufficient information in the public domain to determine the exact genesis or the size of Governor Symington's trust funds. It is known that there are four such funds created in 1946, 1954, 1955 and 1960.
But given the substantial flow of Frick family money to the governor, it is not surprising that for years a portrait of Henry Clay Frick hung behind the desk of rising Phoenix businessman John Fife Symington III.
@body:In December 1991, the Resolution Trust Corporation, the governmental entity charged with cleaning up the savings and loan debacle, sued Symington and 11 other former directors of Southwest Savings and Loan.
The RTC accused Symington and the other Southwest Savings officials of negligently driving the institution into the ground, and sought $210 million from the directors to help offset the $941 million taxpayer loss attributable to the institution's collapse.
The suit set off a firestorm in Arizona, where Symington promised to battle the RTC to the death for daring to slander his good name. Symington vowed he would accept no less than complete dismissal of the charges.
In late May, Symington very nearly got what he wanted.
The RTC and Symington signed a proposed settlement agreement ending the suit. The governor accepted no blame for the thrift's failure. He paid no damages. The agreement was reached after several secret court proceedings that even RTC sources admit were unusual.
And, in an ironic twist, the RTC adopted Symington's own public position in justifying the decision to settle.
Both Symington and the RTC now are claiming the governor is broke. So broke he's not worth suing anymore.
But neither will provide proof.
"Based on all the information we have seen in the course of the court proceedings and settlement discussions, Symington is broke," says RTC spokesman Steve Katsanos, who quickly adds that the government still believes that it could have prevailed against Symington if the case had gone to trial.
But, he says, it just wasn't worth spending the money to sue someone who is broke.
Rather than pursue Symington and other Southwest Savings officials, the RTC wants to accept $12.1 million from National Bulk Carriers, a company controlled by the late billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig. Ludwig owned both Phoenix-based Southwest Savings and American Savings of Salt Lake City, which also failed.
The pending settlement still must be approved by the New York probate court handling Ludwig's estate and a U.S. District Court judge.
Details of a February 10 federal court hearing on the proposed settlement, as well as two January court motions related to Symington's finances, have been sealed at the RTC's request--a move considered very unusual by several private attorneys who have represented the RTC in high-profile cases.
RTC officials contend that sealing court records was necessary to reach a settlement.
But a Washington, D.C., attorney with close ties to the RTC's case against Southwest Savings expressed disappointment over the terms of the settlement, saying he expected the government to receive more money.
More surprising than the size of the settlement, the attorney says, is the government's willingness to accept Symington's plea of insolvency.
"My reaction is, 'Bullshit, he doesn't have any money,'" says the attorney, who requested anonymity. "You know, he's someone who can get money if he doesn't have it."
That attorney may be only half-right. There is a significant pile of money out there with Symington's name attached to it.
The question is whether anyone--even Symington--can get to it, under present circumstances.
Symington's share of the Frick family fortune appears to be securely tucked away in four Frick trust funds under the tight control of Pittsburgh's Mellon Bank.
Financial disclosure records filed with the Secretary of State indicate there is at least $325,000 in the trusts. It seems likely the funds contain much more.
State financial disclosure laws only require public officials to classify the value of their assets within broad ranges. In this case, Symington has indicated that three of the trust funds are worth more than $100,000 each, and the fourth is worth anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000.
Trust and estate lawyers say the Frick trusts are most likely beyond the reach of any creditor, including the RTC. The RTC apparently concluded this was the case.
"If the [Frick] trust is structured in a way that Symington can say he doesn't want a distribution, and the trustee doesn't have to pay it, then the RTC is totally defeated," a Phoenix trust lawyer says.
Trust lawyers give a name to this idyllic state, where the crown jewels lie out of reach of any and all creditors. It is called being "judgment-proof."
"You can basically go out and screw the world and not really ever jeopardize the assets in the trust," the trust lawyer says.
Of course, running up huge debts does pose problems, even for those with "untouchable" trust funds. Eventually, it becomes very difficult for a trust beneficiary to tap directly the assets or the earnings of a trust without creditors swooping down to lay claim to the money.
It is likely Symington has faced this problem. Symington has had a string of creditors chasing him for the last several years. At least one has considered going after a trust--only to find it impenetrable.
But one by one, most of Symington's creditors have forgiven some, if not all, of the money owed by the governor. In 1993, four longtime creditors forgave loans to Symington, and two other creditors dismissed at least part of the debt they claimed they were owed, state financial disclosure records show.
The governor still has financial problems. He faces several significant creditors, including pension funds that lent money to the Mercado development in downtown Phoenix. Those funds have filed suit against Symington over his personal guarantee to repay a $10 million loan.
And a federal grand jury continues to investigate his personal finances. The government appears to believe Symington may have issued inconsistent financial statements to lending institutions at the same time. If the government believes it can prove Symington intentionally submitted false financial statements to obtain loans, a criminal indictment could follow.
Clearly, though, the RTC removed the most significant potential obstacle between Symington and his trust funds when it agreed to settle its civil suit against him, rather than seek a judgment that would trail him for years.
And so, despite all his public financial difficulties, the governor finds himself in a relatively enviable position. He is broke, at least as far as repaying loans or facing financial liability in civil suits goes.
At the same time, he is just a telephone call away from four Frick trust funds holding, at the least, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"That's the beauty of a trust," one trust attorney says. "The way these things have been set up is to benefit Symington and to protect the assets from anything, in essence, Symington does."
@body:In the course of his business career, Governor Symington seems to have emulated, to one degree or another, his great-grandfather. It is unclear whether the emulation was conscious. It is quite clear the result has meant financial disaster.
Historical accounts depict Henry Clay Frick as a man who dedicated his life to business, working long days and well into the evenings. Even after he had made a sizable fortune, Frick kept grueling business hours. And he was hardly averse to risk.
With his coke-manufacturing company on the edge of disaster during the financial panic of 1873, Frick hit upon an idea one day while traveling back from Pittsburgh to his hometown of Broadford, Pennsylvania.
Broadford had financed construction of a ten-mile railroad spur several years before the panic hit. The spur line was built primarily to move Frick's coke to iron and steel mills, where it fueled furnaces.
Farmers and other Broadford investors were desperate to sell their stock in the spur. Frick, however, believed that the national financial downturn was about to reverse.
After convincing the desperate investors to sign sales options over to him, the 24-year-old Frick persuaded the owners of the Baltimore and Ohio railway to buy the Broadford spur.
Frick profited handsomely from the transaction, earning a $50,000 commission. Frick and Company was assured railway transportation by the agreement, and within three years, the spur line proved to be a great financial boon to the Baltimore and Ohio railway as demand for Frick coke soared.
Frick was on his way to the first of many millions of dollars. During the ensuing career, Frick faced numerous travails, including an assassination attempt during the Homestead strike that left him seriously wounded.
But he always persevered. Some of his money and some of his risk-taking, no-surrender mindset appear to have trickled down to Governor Symington.
Like Frick, Symington gambled a fortune that the economy would turn and rescue him from difficult circumstances. But the Phoenix real estate market did not improve in time to save Symington's projects from foreclosure.
Even so, Symington demonstrated Fricklike will power during the RTC standoff. The governor stared down the federal government, never blinking.
"The man is hard as nails," says one Symington business associate. "He just has a remarkable ability to let this stuff just float right off his back."
But there appears to be a profound difference between the two men when it comes to the actual running of a business.
Where Frick was focused and diligent, Symington has let himself be distracted by other matters, particularly politics and vacations.
During the crucial days of development of the Camelback Esplanade, by far the governor's grandest real estate project, a former partner, I. Jerome Hirsch, repeatedly criticized Symington for failing to devote adequate time to the project.
Hirsch warned in October 1983 that the project could turn out to be a "white elephant" for its primary investor, Southwest Savings, if Symington didn't reform his loose management style. By the spring of 1984, the situation was proving to be intolerable for Hirsch.`
"Since the project began, you have taken, and plan continuing to take, significant vacations; you are continuing to be heavily involved in politics; you have increased your membership and activities on nonprofit local corporate boards . . . and you are still actively seeking other major real estate projects," Hirsch wrote in a May 8, 1984, letter to Symington.
The Esplanade project, located at 24th Street and Camelback Road, later failed, dragging Symington into the RTC civil suit and a subsequent criminal investigation. Massive publicity and litigation ensued.
In the end, J. Fife Symington III was no Henry Clay Frick.
@body:All is quiet on a mid-June afternoon on the Symington estate. Only the faraway hum of a freeway interferes with the pleasantly chaotic chirping of scores of birds nesting in the nearby woods. But it isn't hard to imagine how lively the estate must have been at one time.
A manicured croquet court for afternoon matches. A walk through the arbor into the rose garden. An early-evening dip in the swimming pool. It all must have been inviting to a young John Fife Symington III and his friends.
But the brick mansion is eerily empty now. Most of the outlying acreage has fallen into disarray. The orchard is dead. The green houses are crumbling. The rose bushes are dying. The pool's water is algae green.
Forty-six years after Martha Frick Symington purchased the estate, the governor's childhood home has been sold.
A developer, who plans to subdivide the 38 acres of the estate, purchased the property from Martha Symington for $1.65 million on June 14.
The governor's mother has since moved down to the bottom of the hill she once overlooked, into a duplex, for which she paid $427,000 cash.
The sale of the Symington estate marks the end of an era of grand country living for the prosperous family, an era dating back 100 years to Henry Clay Frick.
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.