Fife's Cross to Bear

Inexorably, federal prosecutor David Schindler is dragging Governor J. Fife Symington III through a time Symington would rather forget.

Schindler is taking Symington back 12 years, to the fall of 1985, when the first major cracks in Symington's development company began to appear.

Back to the days when Symington was forced to repeatedly borrow millions of dollars from friends and financial institutions to keep his struggling company afloat and sustain his dream of building the Camelback Esplanade.

Back to April 1986, when the government alleges he first began lying on his personal financial statements and other documents submitted to lenders to obtain loans--a pattern prosecutors allege continued for the next six years.

Symington is a reluctant passenger on Schindler's cross-examination time machine. But it's a ride he must take. On July 24, he became Arizona's first sitting governor to take the witness stand as a criminal defendant.

During cross-examination that began late Friday, July 25, and resumed Tuesday, Schindler treated Symington like a first-class passenger, frequently allowing the governor to digress into lengthy explanations that bordered on lectures.

Symington appeared to be enjoying much of the ride, smiling when his response was particularly pithy. And so, too, did Schindler, who could barely hide his smirk as Symington reeled off yet another pat but elliptical response to a pointed question.

Courtroom observers generally agreed that Symington held up well in the early going. He was argumentative in his responses to Schindler's questions, yet controlled his fierce temper. His voice was steady and strong. He countered several of Schindler's attacks with style and humor.

But Schindler is steadily forcing Symington to admit that his financial statements were fraught with mistakes that had the overall effect of increasing his net worth, increasing the likelihood that lenders would look kindly on Symington's requests for money.

The ride will become increasingly choppy as Schindler's time machine moves into the late 1980s and early 1990s. Symington will be forced to confront reams of documents that appear to support the government's contention he knowingly prepared multiple financial statements with widely varying values during the same time period.

Not only did he prepare the statements, the government alleges he knowingly submitted the false financial statements to lenders to obtain loans--loans that Symington personally guaranteed to repay but never did.

By late Tuesday, Schindler was turning up the heat on Symington, asking more accusatory questions and cutting off Symington's speechmaking. Symington's face flushed red under the barrage.

So far, Symington's only explanation for repeated mistakes he admits appear on his financial statements was that he simply didn't pay much attention when he filled out the forms and he was relying on his faulty memory.

"The financial statement was not the focus of my life. I didn't spend a lot of time on it," Symington testified Tuesday.

Symington's blithe mea culpas already were wearing thin.
And Schindler was only two years into his six-year journey through the Symington Years.

Symington is well-prepared for battle.
He knows his lines, which for the most part have worked in his favor.
Symington has been under fire for his business practices since before he was elected governor in February 1991. So far, he's deflected charges of unethical and illegal actions in a manner that would make Ronald Reagan envious.

Symington's defense was expected to call about 12 witnesses during 12 days. Instead, his attorney, John Dowd, called just four witnesses prior to calling the governor.

Symington's brief defense caught many by surprise.
"We don't waste time," Dowd explained in response to reporters' questions about his strategy.

Symington's defense is to downplay 22 criminal counts alleging bank fraud, extortion and perjury by simply shrugging them off as nothing more than nit-picking. Dowd has portrayed the feds as being obsessed with meaningless fine print buried in risky and complicated business transactions that damaged no one.

"This is supposed to be a criminal case," Dowd says. "Where's the body?"
Rather than attempting to defuse land mines planted by the prosecution, Dowd used Symington's testimony to propel the case in a different direction.

Instead of the blame-shrugging developer described by prosecutors, Symington admitted responsibility for numerous errors on his financial statements. All the mistakes, Symington testified, were unintentional.

"He's very candid in how he fouled up and messed up," Dowd says.
Symington portrayed himself as the heroic developer who ignored his financial collapse to obtain funds from Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank so he could pay laborers working on the Camelback Esplanade project.

"All those people had to get paid," Dowd says in explaining why Symington falsely certified that he still had a net worth of $4 million when it was actually negative $22 million at the time he signed three draw requests in 1991 and 1992 to obtain funds from the bank.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty