Castle Creep

In chess, one player may be able to position his pieces to win in a set number of moves, regardless of the countermoves made by his opponent. Once this position is reached, skill and experience are meaningless. There is simply no way the opponent can protect his king from capture, or checkmate. Both players usually recognize this "forcing mate" situation and agree to forgo the remaining moves. The loser tips his king on its side, a signal of dignified resignation.

After his federal indictment last week, Fife Symington the Third, King of Arizona, faces forced checkmate. His response has not been dignified. He has eschewed resignation, insisting that his few remaining pawns will somehow forge victory against the legion of castles, knights and bishops a federal prosecutor commands. He has ignored his opponent's most powerful piece--the Queen of Facts--which is capable of attacking from all directions. He has complained that his opponent drew out the game longer than necessary. At the same time, the King of Arizona has claimed to welcome the opportunity to play out his desperate denouement.

It will be entertaining to watch Fife III struggle. It is the type of entertainment offered by PBS nature documentaries that show slow-motion lions stalking, then slaughtering wildebeests. Even when the outcome is certain, there is drama to the hunt.

But Arizona is not a monarchy, and self-governance ought not be merely a series of atavistic slaughters. This high-stakes chess game--USA vs. King Fife III--should never have started. This King could and would have been deposed long ago--by his own subjects--if they had been informed of the true scope of his wrongdoing.

That they were not so informed ought to be the enduring shame of the press, the prosecutors and the Democratic leadership of Arizona, all of whom should have been indicted last week along with Fife III. The charges: Cowardice. Laziness. Dishonesty. Incompetence.

Most of the 23 criminal charges the federal government filed against Fife Symington last week center on his propensity to lie about important fiscal matters. The government charges him with submitting false financial statements to institutions that had lent money to his development company for a variety of projects, most of which failed. For example, federal investigators allege that Symington gave one lender a financial statement stating he was worth $5.3 million in December 1990, told another he was $4.1 million in the hole and informed a third lender he did not even have a statement for December 1990.

This reflex for telling whopping falsehoods on paper has been, or should have been, well-known to Arizona's opinion leaders for some time.

One of the federal counts accuses the governor of attempted extortion, alleging he used his office to bully pension funds that had lent money for the Mercado development downtown.

Although the term "extortion" did not see wide use until last week, Symington's problems at the Mercado have certainly been no secret. We have written lengthy stories detailing the governor's sleazy attempts to avoid repaying a $10 million loan made by union pension funds.

The federal government continues to investigate the alleged rigging of bids for Project SLIM, a cost-cutting program of state government. The governor's personal accountants, Coopers & Lybrand, received SLIM contracts through an extraordinarily screwy bidding process.

That process has not been hidden, either. Reams of public documents detailing the greased bids have long been available to anyone with the time and interest to review them.

And the list of other Symington chicanery stretches from here to Prescott.
So if most of the substance behind the indictments--and more--has been known or knowable for years, why is it only now that there is a serious level of uproar about Fife Symington's activities?

One explanation, of course, has to do with the group of see, hear-and-speak-no-evil sluggards known as the Phoenix news media.

When I came to Arizona three years ago, it quickly became clear to me that the major news media in this town were doggedly avoiding negative stories about Fife Symington, and helping the governor spin negative stories that could not be avoided to his best advantage. This dereliction of journalistic duty--evinced most thoroughly by the Arizona Republic--puzzled and, eventually, angered me.

Over time, though, I began to see that it wasn't just the Republic that was afraid to confront Fife Symington with his own malfeasance. As more and more information about Symington's unethical activities became public--much of it through the efforts of New Times' John Dougherty--individuals and institutions outside the press who had a responsibility to face Symington's ethical bankruptcy head-on showed little interest in doing so.

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is responsible for prosecuting state criminal offenses. He has done less than nothing about his corrupt king. His "investigation" of Project SLIM found no criminal wrongdoing. A subsequent federal probe brought indictments against two of Symington's closest confidants. Yet no one in the mainstream press has asked whether Romley is willfully blinkered or simply incompetent. The prevailing excuse seems to be: Well, what do you expect? Symington and Romley are allies. Do you really expect that a county attorney would honor his oath of office rather than protect a crony?

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John Mecklin