The First Lady's Last Stand
On one of their first dates, Ann Olin Pritzlaff and J. Fife Symington III watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie about the escapades of two rogue bank robbers who are aided and abetted by a mousy schoolmarm named Etta Place.
Has former schoolteacher Ann Olin Pritzlaff Symington ever grasped the irony of her movie selection that day with her future husband, now a suspected bank plunderer himself?
As she watches her husband of 21 years being tried in U.S. District Court, does Ann Symington ever remember their courtship?
When the two met back in the 1970s, Ann Olin Pritzlaff was the plain-Jane heiress of the multimillion-dollar Olin Chemical fortune and a very big deal in Phoenix society. Nobody seemed too surprised when Fife Symington began moving in on Ann, who was a second-grade teacher in Phoenix.
Fife, the father of two sons, was recovering from a divorce; his ex told the court that Fife was not gainfully employed and was in constant debt. Apparently, income from his trust funds failed to cover his expenses.
Despite these pecuniary embarrassments, Fife Symington claimed a pedigree--his mother's grandfather was steel robber baron Henry Clay Frick. His father descended from a long line of patrician Symingtons who were notorious for replenishing dwindling bank accounts by marrying wealthy heiresses.
Fife Symington says he married Ann for love, not money.
And Ann Symington says she sticks with Fife because she's madly in love with him.
Don't believe any of it.
Ann Symington avoids most press interviews--unless she grants them to reporters who are so friendly as to compromise their journalistic integrity. The few articles about her portray her exactly as she wants to be seen--as a well-mannered, innocent, good-natured, religious, long-suffering and loyal wife.
To protect herself from public suspicion, Ann Symington, the one with all the money and all the power, packages herself as a genteel, naive victim. She has done this in the face of all the scandals that have plagued her husband's tenure as governor. First there was Fife Symington's cozy relationship with a curvy but vapid former aide, Annette Alvarez, followed by the governor's recent appointment of Alvarez's controversial dad to a Cochise County judgeship (a post to which he could not win reelection).
Ann Symington, of course, is ever so much more important to Fife than Annette Alvarez, and she knows it. Fife sticks with the money. Although she's been in the courthouse, Alvarez has not been present at Symington's trial. Ann seldom leaves it.
She presides over her husband's trial with meticulous, quiet grace, the loving and innocent wife who stands by her guy.
"Poor Ann," high-society types say.
"How can she take this?"
Of course, Ann Olin Pritzlaff Symington is no more an innocent victim than the enabling schoolmarm Etta Place in the Butch Cassidy flick.
The first lady is nobody's fool when it comes to money. She manages her own multimillion-dollar fortune. She knows about stocks and bonds and financial statements and trust agreements and promissory notes and how the right lawyers can twist the law.
If you have any doubt about this, consider the trail of sleaze Ann Symington has left in the public record:
* In 1990, Ann Symington and Fife Symington pledged nonexistent community property to guarantee a $10 million loan to finance the Mercado shopping center in downtown Phoenix. The lenders, a group of pension funds, knew there was little community property, but relied on the Symingtons' good name.
After her husband went bankrupt in 1995, the heiress did not apologize to the union pension funds, or offer to repay the loan. She walked away from it.
* Ann Symington wanted to be first lady so badly, she flouted campaign laws to provide her husband with the money that helped get him elected. She said in a deposition that she lent Fife more than $600,000 for his campaign, and he signed a promissory note. But of course, she never intended to collect on that note. She's testified in her husband's bankruptcy case that she never expected her husband to repay the loan, that she created the promissory note to "conform" with campaign finance law--which prohibits such gifts.
* In the face of law enforcement's scrutiny over Fife Symington's wildly conflicting statements of net worth, Ann Symington paid $10 to Martha Symington, her now-deceased mother-in-law, to purchase a $1.8 million debt that the governor owed to his mother. Ann Symington, in turn, forgave the debt--one third of which found its way into his gubernatorial campaign. So Ann's apparently illegal contributions to her husband's political career amount to $1.2 million.
Lisa Daniel, who oversees elections for the secretary of state, says the Symingtons violated state campaign-finance laws. Despite Ann's admissions under oath, the GOP-run Secretary of State's Office has filed no complaints against either Saint Ann or Fife Symington. The Arizona Attorney General's Office has done nothing about it.
* Ann Symington has paid Fife Symington's criminal defense attorney, John Dowd, more than $628,000. So far.
Like her husband, Ann Symington engaged in serious deception. She went along with the campaign-loan charade.
The first lady has never publicly exhibited any remorse for the campaign loan or the pension-fund debacle. She's never offered to cover any of her husband's debts with her inheritance. This is not the sort of Christian behavior one would expect from the pious first lady.
It begs the question: Is Ann Symington an unindicted co-conspirator masquerading as an ingenue?
When government investigators began showing an interest in Fife Symington's former secretary Joyce Riebel several years ago, Ann Symington paid for Joyce Riebel's lawyer.
Attorneys for the governor and Riebel crafted a "joint defense agreement." And after being granted immunity from prosecution, Riebel reluctantly testified last week about her role in preparing those wildly conflicting financial statements.
Ann Symington's reaction to Riebel's testimony spoke volumes.
The first lady of Arizona sat in her usual place, the first seat in the first row of the right-hand side of the courtroom, directly behind her husband. A large monitor--a high-tech tool that displays and magnifies the allegedly fraudulent financial statements--glowered from above.
As the screen displayed incriminating documents and prosecutors asked Riebel about Ann Symington's wealth, Ann did not look up at the monitor. She was simply above being confronted with ugly truths.
Instead, she penned messages on personalized stationery.
Despite her feigned indifference, she must have been absorbing every word from Riebel, whose testimony might send the governor to prison. How could she not?
Sometimes, Ann Symington's 67-year-old mother, Marydell Olin Pritzlaff, sits in for Ann. Pritzlaff barely masks her disdain for her wastrel son-in-law. Pritzlaff avoids talking to the governor during breaks, and once, when she made eye contact with him, a palpable coldness passed between them. When prosecutors harp about Symington's misrepresentation of trust-funds assets, Marydell Olin Pritzlaff casts her eyes downward and seems ashamed. She knows about trust funds. She knows her son-in-law was dishonest.
After court last week, I asked her for an interview. She hurried down the street without replying.
She's an innocent victim, a real one, and Ann Symington should not expose her elderly mother to this humiliation.
Another innocent victim, Ann Symington's daughter Whitney Symington, occasionally comes to sit with her grandmother. You can see these two are close. There is more warmth between Whitney and her grandmother than between Ann and Whitney. Whitney doesn't exhibit much patience for her father's trial--and bolts from the court early on occasion.
In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Etta Place leaves her job as a schoolteacher and follows her lover, a smooth-talking bank thief. But as their South American getaway sours, as her man proves he is incapable of living honestly, Etta comes to her senses. She abandons her man shortly before he and his accomplice are surrounded and slaughtered by an army of federales in some Andean courtyard.
The federales are closing in again.
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.