Once again, on Sunday night, there was the irate face of J. Fife Symington III. The governor's moistened lips were pursed with aristocratic disdain. I thought that was just fine.

After all, any governor worth his salt should come equipped with a certain aristocratic demeanor. In politics, appearances are everything.

Once again, the governor was finding it necessary to explain that he is not a con man. Somehow, I found this beguiling but unconvincing.

"We are living in a nasty and litigious era," Symington said. "It is a time when people's reputations are getting destroyed." Symington doesn't like the things the government lawyers in Washington, D.C., keep saying about him. The reputation he is talking about is his own.

They are charging that Symington engaged in "blatant self-dealing" while he was a director of Southwest Savings and Loan.

I'm afraid that's a trifle harsh. It demonstrates that people in government no longer have a sense of humor about Arizona politics or our peculiar brand of real estate dealing.

After all, Symington pulled off something that would have made the greats of the Arizona real estate game, like Ned Warren and Charlie Keating, bow their heads with deepest admiration.

Symington's ploy was magnificent. He and his partner invested a mere $432 of their own money for their share in the Camelback Esplanade project that earned them more than $8 million in development fees.

Symington, ever the insider, was able to work this enterprising deal because he was a member of the board of directors of Southwest Savings, which lent the money.

Our governor was too proper to actually vote on the loan. However, he did get to present the project to the board with all of his customary persuasiveness. This was, of course, a board which consisted of his colleagues, friends and business acquaintances. Southwest Savings eventually folded, and this failure will cost the taxpayers $941 million. The Esplanade, pushed by Symington, was its largest single deal. Now government lawyers say Symington should be sued for recovery of millions of dollars in taxpayer losses. Symington has been performing a wonderfully entertaining dance on this issue ever since.

"Despicable," he said at a press conference the day before the story appeared in the Washington Post.

"The charges are simply outrageous," he said. What Symington neglected to admit was that the charges might be true.

He is a politician with a bloated impression of his own self-worth who has been operating in a dream world. Symington and his followers apparently believed that the whole situation surrounding the Camelback Esplanade rip-off was going to fade away.

It will not go away. It will only become more irritating. What we should all hope is that this will be the start of a campaign to spend the Nineties getting back the money that was stolen during the Eighties. That decade will be remembered as a time when every vacant lot in central Phoenix was turned into another high-rise that now sits virtually vacant.

Thanks to the digging of the lawyers from the Resolution Trust Corporation, a harsh new light has been thrown on Symington, who emigrated from the Maryland hunt country posing as a man with bottomless pockets.

With a carefully prepared facade as a man of unlimited wealth, Symington fought the Phoenix City Council for a variance so he could build the Camelback Esplanade project.

All we ever learned during those early days was that Symington was willing to spend close to $1 million for television publicity to sell the public on the necessity for the project at 24th Street and Camelback.

We didn't know where the money was coming from. Now we do. It was coming from Southwest Savings and Loan.

However, even then we did learn how slippery Symington was capable of being. One of the city councilmembers opposing the project was Ed Korrick, who lived in the Biltmore district. Symington, wishing to rid himself of Korrick's opposition vote, donated $30,000 to the campaign of Korrick's opponent.

At the time Symington made that donation, the limit for campaign donations was $200. How did he get away with it?

Symington had insinuated himself into the Republican hierarchy and been appointed secretary of the party. Using his office as a crutch, Symington made it look as if the money was being donated to Korrick's opponent by the Republican party as a whole.

The case was duly presented to former Attorney General Bob Corbin. Staunch Republican that he was, Corbin declined to prosecute.

Symington sold the Esplanade project to the public on the basis of its being a "world-class project" filled with only the most exclusive retail stores.

It does not take an architectural expert to see that Symington's project is nothing more than an ill-conceived set of dumpy, uninspired buildings anchored by a small hotel. Worst of all, the hotel is in an undesirable location.

If you think I exaggerate, try walking across Camelback Road someday from the Esplanade in an attempt to shop at the stores at Biltmore Fashion Park.

Sources say Symington is beset with financial problems at the Esplanade. He made guarantees to his backers in Japan and, due to the economic slump, he has not been able to deliver.

Now Symington announces he will take a state-paid trip to Japan this week in order to drum up business for Arizona.

The timing is interesting. One tends to wonder whether the trip is also an opportunity for Symington to plead before his Japanese backers in the Esplanade project. Given the state of his personal affairs, one wonders which is more important on the Symington agenda.

Another jewel in Symington's crown was the Mercado project in downtown Phoenix. Even Symington must admit that is a financial disaster.

I will always remember the look of plutocratic outrage Symington was able to muster in his defense this past week.

"It's despicable and libelous," Symington said at one point. It's the very thing you might expect to hear in the lounge of the Harvard Club. On Sunday night, the television interviewer asked Symington if he was planning to sue. It was amazing how quickly Symington backed down.

"Let's just say," our governor said, "that I'm looking at all my options." What we have here is a rich man's Evan Mecham. All the lawsuits will, in fact, be coming from the other direction.

Symington doesn't like the things the government lawyers in Washington, D.C., keep saying about him.

Symington is a politician with a bloated impression of his own self-worth who has been operating in a dream world.

It does not take an architectural expert to see that the Esplanade is nothing more than an ill-conceived set of dumpy, uninspired buildings.

CLOSING THE BOOKS ... v9-18-91

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Tom Fitzpatrick