This is not a love story.
Nor is this about the lives of private persons.
In fact, the story of Annette Alvarez and Fife Symington is a public disgrace. It's an old tale about the bigness of little things, of petty crimes that become a person's undoing.
If the Symington Administration crumbles, it will be due to something small. Like a lie. Whether it's a white lie or The Big Lie doesn't really matter. What's gotten this Governor a recall petition in record time and cost him the public's confidence is the cover-up. Like I said, it's an old story.
Twenty years ago, when a cover-up undid President Nixon, the Monday- morning armchair advisers all said, He should've burned the tapes." No evidence, no crime.
But these tapes won't burn. They're indelibly printed in the minds of even those who most wanted to see this administration succeed.
Mostly, they show Symington pulling the covers over his head and denying that he's in the room. The punch line, of course, is that the taxpayers are paying for the room.
During his 1990 gubernatorial campaign, he got away with this tactic. New Times challenged the central pillar in his house of cards by questioning his skills as a businessman. Remember, Symington sold himself as the guy who would run government like a business.
And the public bought it.
When we showed that this well-heeled developer was presiding over an empire in dire financial straits, and predicted that his term in office would be consumed with investment failures, lawsuits and potential conflicts of interest, Symington dismissed it all as the mad ravings of tabloid journalism."
When the Washington Post subsequently ran its story last August about the federal lawsuit waiting in the wings over Fife's role in the Southwest Savings and Loan debacle, Symington broadened his attack. The media," he roared indignantly, were the real culprits, for they had sprung the leaks."
Sure enough, when the Resolution Trust Corporation named Symington as a defendant in the multimillion-dollar suit, the Governor and his bully-boy advisers again went on the offensive. This time, the RTC was the opposing team, and Symington chastised the federal prosecutors for not giving him opportunity enough to settle the case out of court before it was filed.
Again, some people bought it, though the list of the gullible kept getting smaller.
Meanwhile, Symington was running government like a business. Like his business. Like a business in trouble. Like nobody's business.
The Governor filled the highest echelons of state government with all the thirtysomething Symington Company employees that public money could buy.
Annette Alvarez was one of them. A beauty. Symington paid her $60,000 a year and made her his top assistant in charge of Arizona's international trade.
Just because she had no experience in foreign trade didn't matter. She hadn't graduated college, either. Perhaps she had some special skill that qualified her for the job.
But in short order, it became clear that Annette was a lost ball in high grass. In her first month in office, she'd cost the state a multimillion-dollar trade opportunity with the Japanese, and insulted its diplomatic emissaries in the process.
What's more, she'd frittered away precious time in establishing a trade outpost in Mexico City. In the process, she offended top Arizona business persons who'd wanted to boost commerce between the state and its Mexican neighbors. More money down the drain.
When New Times was researching the foibles of this appointee, we asked ourselves how Symington could have picked this woman for the job. Along the way, we discovered a love letter she'd written My Dear Fife" in the early hours of the campaign, back in December 1989.
In that handwritten letter, Alvarez professed her undying love for Symington. ÔI do know I love you," she wrote, and it will be forever, but I don't think it's the kind of love I'm looking for."
As the letter went on, she described the pain of a previous relationship she'd had with a married man. She said she didn't want to live out any more secrets." She waxed on about the hummingbird Fife had given her. Bright, vibrant and free."
And she said: My Dear Fife, I am slowly going under by allowing this heightened intimacy to continue. I've changed the faces but the behaviors are constant."
Last October we published a story that catalogued the millions of dollars in lost opportunities Alvarez had cost the state. We also offered the only logical explanation of how this college dropout had risen so quickly to the top of the Symington Administration. It spoke volumes about the Governor's judgment.
And his hubris.
While we said the letter suggested an intimate affair between Symington and Alvarez, we also admitted that the missive, at a minimum, showed Annette's emotional dependency on Fife. All in all, it was not a healthy way to conduct the state's foreign affairs.
No one, least of all this newspaper, cares how Symington spends his quality time," whether a romance was actually consummated or merely an exotic dance of the imagination. But certainly there was fire, and the public was getting burned.
When New Times broke the story, Fife refused to dignify" the accusation with a response. Still, he categorically denied it.
At the time, the local dailies distanced themselves from the story. The Phoenix Gazette refused to acknowledge the revelation. Columns around the Valley were spiked," pulled from the papers. Back then, the Arizona Republic mockingly opined, what looks like a `smoking gun' is really just a water pistol."
Of course, when Newsweek prominently featured the story in its November 4, 1991, issue, the Governor no longer could rely on his Ôtabloid journalism" excuse. In the following issue, Newsweek published his carefully crafted letter to the editor.
In that letter, Symington denied that I am conducting a personal affair with my executive assistant." He did not deny, however, that he had conducted a personal affair with Alvarez, whether on the campaign trail or otherwise. Symington went on to attack the magazine's lack of proof." He also argued that most of the Arizona media chose to downplay or criticize the story." For example, he quoted the Republic's water pistol" line.
Fife and his handlers must have felt pretty good about their exercise of damage control-back then. A few neatly worded denials. Some imperial indignation. There, it was over.
Never once, mind you, did Symington or Alvarez deny the authenticity of the love letter. Not once did they seek retraction of the stories. Not once did the Governor allow his dark-eyed miss to respond to questions about the international chaos she'd wrought. Or about the letter.
Stonewalling was the preferred tactic; umbrage, his decoration for the brick wall.
Last month Symington was featured in the Sunday Los Angeles Times as the latest in a succession of Arizona's political embarrassments. When asked about the Alvarez affair by the Times' Paul Dean, Symington resorted to his old trick-blast New Times, keep the head down and keep blasting: [Alvarez] is here to stay and she is terrific and that New Times stuff is total baloney, and we realize that we're just going to have to put up with it."
It didn't move Mr. Dean in Los Angeles. Why should it? Here to stay"? Two weeks after his remark to the Times, Alvarez was history.
Yet a year ago Fife's double talk might have worked. In fact, with the help of a few million dollars from his mother and his wife, answers like that got him elected.
Symington may say it's total baloney," but instantly two things began to change after we printed the story. One, Alvarez's sphere of influence shrunk from the entire planet to the Mexican nation, our neighbor to the south. Only her salary remained unchanged at $60,000 a year. Two, the Governor and his wife, Ann, started showing up together in public more often. The days of Bachelor Governor were over.
But his denial had been so categoric. His indignation so imperious. What would he say when the Mesa Tribune discovered two weeks ago that he'd paid some $9,000 in campaign funds to the IRS to satisfy Alvarez's delinquent taxes?
Before entering government, Alvarez had been Symington's press secretary. Never mind that, by her own admission, she had no idea what a press secretary's duties were. In time she would be replaced by a guy with a better grip on the subject.
This time, Symington couldn't blame New Times. He could try blaming the federal government, just as he'd blamed the RTC, but everybody's got to pay taxes. No, that wouldn't wash.
In a thoughtless moment, while Symington was away skiing in Telluride, Alvarez spoke to the press. She said she'd earned the money working on the campaign as a consultant." In addition to the $9,000 and her $450 weekly salary, Alvarez claimed to have earned another five grand in the final hours of the campaign consulting" with Fife.
This was all too much-even for Symington. When he returned from the Colorado slopes, he came up with a different tale. It went like this: Since Alvarez was two years in arrears to the federal and state revenue departments, the IRS had levied" her wages from the campaign. He had no choice but to pay the levy. Still, he maintained, she had earned the money. It was merely coincidence that the campaign issued the checks to the IRS only two days before he took officeÏand just after the liens were filed.
Symington's indignation, his categorical denials, were quickly becoming a faded mask. The intimacy that he had denied-in the face of Annette's love letter and other evidence of their special relationshipÏwas becoming his undoing.
Last week New Times offered more evidence of Symington's wobbly judgment. We revealed that the Governor had taken Alvarez with him to New York City last May, supposedly to meet with financial reporters, foreign diplomats and investment bankers. They stayed at the posh Hotel Westbury, and Fife paid for Annette's room with his personal credit card. The bill came to more than $900.
So far, so good. But she sought and received reimbursement from the state for expenses he had incurred. And he'd already submitted his own reimbursement form for his room on the trip. (Fife and Annette had adjoining rooms, 501 and 502, at the Westbury, a fact that figured into Steve Benson's devastating cartoon in last Friday's Republic.)
When this latest mudstorm hit the dailies, Symington again was out of town-Washington, D.C., this time. But the cockeyed stories spun by his press aide, Doug Cole, and his chief of staff, Chris Herstam, took the art of spin-doctoring to new and dizzying heights.
When Alvarez was first asked about the New York trip last fall, she said she'd already repaid the Governor. That was answer number one.
When Cole was asked the same question last Thursday, he came up with a different, more convoluted tale. Cole said that Alvarez actually thought her reimbursement check for the New York trip was recompense for a later Washington sojourn with commerce chief Jim Marsh. That was answer number two.
But then it was discovered that Alvarez already had been reimbursed the $268 for the Washington trip. That occasioned answer number three.
Alvarez simply did not remember receiving the $268 check. Of course not: She filed two expense claims for the Washington trip, one with the Commerce Department, another with the Office of Tourism.
Alvarez did so much traveling her first months in office, evidently her head was spinning. So were all the reimbursement checks.
So were all the administration's answers.
I didn't think it possible, but finally Cole pulled out one explanation- answer number four-that truly serves as the scoundrel's last refuge.
There were a lot of secretaries," Cole explained.
You bet. But all the double-dipping of Fife and Annette can't be laid at their secretaries' doorstep. The secretaries don't originate these documents. Cole's latest excuse was like blaming the maid for the missing silverware. Annette finally cut Fife a check to reimburse him for her room charges only last Thursday-nearly a year after Fife and Annette did the Big Apple. Or at least that was answer number five.
We already knew Annette had a lot to learn about international trade. Then we discovered her bookkeeping wasn't so great, either. Indeed, last Saturday-six months after the Republic editorially dismissed Symington's affection for his bumbling aide as much ado about nothing-even the Republic changed course, urging the Governor to toss Alvarez overboard.
Fife obeyed. Alvarez walked the gang plank 48 hours later. Apparently no one could fill Annette's shoes-no successor was immediately named.
But Annette's departure doesn't get Fife off the hook. Hasn't he known all along about these shenanigans?
Surely he knows he paid for Annette's room, and just as surely he knows she didn't repay him. Surely he knows he paid her delinquent taxes with campaign funds, and just as surely he knows Annette never earned" the money as a consultant.
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In fact, Fife and Annette's tax fiasco might never have reached the light of day if Symington-a man of great inherited wealth-had simply paid off her tax liens with his own money. Instead, he dipped into campaign finances to get the IRS off his confidante's back. Surely he knows that the state legislature already impeached one Arizona governor four years ago for essentially the same error of protocol.
He also knows he's been too cute by half about the whole affair. It's not a capital crime.
It's just a petty offense.
And a cover-up.
And one too many lies.
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