Fife's History

J. Fife Symington III moved to Arizona more than two decades ago to escape the long shadow of his influential, wealthy Maryland family.

"I'm not beholden to my past out here," Symington explained in 1984 while trying to drum up support for his ill-fated Camelback Esplanade.

But Symington has corruption in his DNA; like his father, he was destined to see his political ambitions dashed and his public-service career end in disgrace.

J. Fife Symington II was an archconservative from tony Lutherville, Maryland, who lost three congressional elections in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

An avid and early supporter of Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 presidential campaign, the elder Symington saw his political aspirations wither with a Watergate-era bribery scandal that sent President Richard Nixon's personal lawyer, Herbert W. Kalmbach, to prison.

Although he was never charged, Fife II secretly contributed $100,000 to Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) in 1970 in exchange for a promised European ambassadorship. The solicitation was made by Kalmbach. Fife II was dissatisfied with his current station, ambassador to Trinidad-Tobago.

His son, Fife III, stayed one step ahead of the law--if not creditors--for more than 14 years.

But he was branded a criminal at 1:23 p.m., Wednesday, September 3, when a federal jury found him guilty on seven counts of bank and wire fraud.

The verdict in U.S. District Court came after a historic 12-week trial before Judge Roger B. Strand. More than 1,300 exhibits were introduced, and 40 witnesses called. Symington was acquitted on three counts and the jury was deadlocked on 11 others.

Symington is to be sentenced on November 10. The 52-year-old real estate developer turned politician could face prison time and substantial fines, although Strand is free to depart from federal sentencing guidelines and give Symington probation.

Sitting between two defense attorneys, Symington displayed no visible emotion as the guilty verdicts were read by a court clerk. Several minutes passed before he turned around to face his family and wife, seated directly behind him.

Ann Symington had spent the summer in the front row of the courtroom, supporting her husband. Now, Symington could only manage a glance at his wife, who, in turn, gazed for the first time upon a convict and soon to be former governor.

A few more minutes passed before Ann joined her husband behind the defense table. The couple, escorted by two state Department of Public Safety security guards, exited the courtroom through a side door at 1:36 p.m. and took an elevator to the basement where the state limousine waited.

By slipping out, Symington avoided a crush of reporters and onlookers that stood outside the courthouse as the verdicts were returned. Cheers erupted when the first guilty verdict was announced.

The verdict brings to an end a federal investigation that began six years ago and ultimately showed that Symington never managed to escape the ethical vacuum his father's politics inhabited.

Ninety minutes after being found guilty, Symington, with Ann at his side, received a standing ovation from his staff as he strode to a podium at the State Capitol to make his final speech as governor.

While eloquent and inspirational, Symington never admitted wrongdoing during the speech nor asked the people of Arizona to forgive him for dragging the state through yet another political scandal.

Instead, Symington, who became the second Arizona governor in nine years to be forced from office when his resignation took effect at 5 p.m. September 5, proclaimed victory in the face of utter defeat.

"What is to come, we know not; but we know that what has been is good," Symington said.

The facts, however, belie Symington's assertion that his six-plus year tenure has been one of greatness--a theme Valley daily newspapers trumpeted in the wake of the verdict.

The record is far more stark. Besides the sordid details of his conviction, it shows:

Shortly after returning from a European vacation, he filed for personal bankruptcy, seeking to wipe out $25 million in debt while knowing he stood to inherit millions.

He lied when he told voters he was a successful businessman.
He stole the 1990 gubernatorial election with $1.3 million in illegal campaign contributions from his wife and his mother.

He defaulted on millions of dollars in personally guaranteed loans, never apologizing or even hinting that he felt any obligation to repay them.

He fought viciously to keep journalists and citizens alike from reviewing public records, which go beyond rhetoric to tell the true story of governance.

He counts among his friends a prominent Mexican businessman and a Mexican politician suspected of narcotics trafficking.

He used his state office to pay off personal debts.
He appointed friends to key state positions and took them at taxpayer expense on a fabulous Japanese "trade mission" and Hawaiian vacation. His first deputy chief of staff wrecked the Governor's Office budget.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty