Contrary to what you hear from the official press, the odds are reasonably high that J. Fife Symington III will be media deep-fried and resigned from office well before his gubernatorial term ends in 1999.

By filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Symington has stepped onto a tightrope strung over a vat of boiling oil. And now--for the first time since he took office--there are people who want to shake the high wire every time Symington takes a step.

Arizona is generally forgiving of ethically challenged politicians, and it is certainly possible that Symington could avoid public scalding; he did, after all, skate on a $200 million lawsuit by the Resolution Trust Corporation, then win reelection as an acknowledged deadbeat under federal grand jury investigation.

If history is any indication, though, Symington will not survive--will, in fact, be relegated to the permanent disdain reserved for the Packwoods, Mechams and Nixons of the world--unless he continues his amazing luck in controlling . . .

The Spin
So far, the Valley's voices of reason have portrayed Symington's bankruptcy carefully, almost sympathetically. It has been an astounding performance of media sensitivity, even by Arizona standards.

One Phoenix TV station, KPNX, Channel 12, reached new lows in bootlicking by following its main bankruptcy story with a lengthy summation of all the "positive" things that have happened in Arizona since Symington took office. Channel 12's authoritative sources for this familiar litany of commercial and social progress: the state Commerce Department, which is headed by a Symington appointee; the Legislature; and Symington's office.

The daily newspapers published a lot of stories about the bankruptcy--ten in the Arizona Republic alone, by my count--the day after it was filed. I am not claiming that reporters consciously suppressed or failed to report what they knew. The most prominent of the first-day stories, however, analyzed Symington in irrelevant, psychobabble clichs: Is he a down-to-earth good guy or an upper-crust snob? A debt-dodger or an unlucky businessman?

The positive side of those pairings somehow seemed to get best play, perhaps because it's so much easier to find defenders of the powerful than critics. And the headline for the Republic's lead bankruptcy story was this patently false quote from Symington: "I've lost everything."

Well, no, he has not. If all goes as Symington wishes, he will retain hundreds of thousands of dollars in trust funds that cannot be seized during bankruptcy, and his wife's millions will also remain untouched.

Some of the Fife-as-victim, Fife-as-psychic-mystery coverage approached self-parody. In one story on the bankruptcy, the Republic/Gazette actually quoted its own publisher, who just happened to breakfast with the governor a few hours before the Chapter 7 filing. What a coincidence!

And where were the publisher and the destitute governor having breakfast?
Why, at a low-cost diner known as The Phoenician, a fact the Republic reported without a hint of irony.

The Republic told us what the whole mass of its confused coverage meant the next day in a lead editorial. Fife Symington was a victim of economic forces beyond his control, and his bankruptcy has nothing to do with the governorship. "No one should expect that the bankruptcy filing will alter his admirable record of cutting the expense of government and increasing the costs paid by criminals," the paper intoned.

Symington could not realistically have hoped local opinion makers would put a more positive spin on the occasion of his bankruptcy. Calls for his resignation have been treated as unrealistic partisan rhetoric. The bankruptcy itself has been portrayed as nothing more than a bad personal moment.

Yet that soft presentation of Symington's bankruptcy has created a subtext that could cause more problems for the governor than it has solved. The subtext is this: I have come clean. There is nothing else.

Facts, however, are stubborn things that even the Phoenix media cannot simply ignore. And there are reasons to suspect that Symington will be plagued for months by suggestions that his is not a case of simple bankruptcy, that there are all sorts of questions that must be asked about . . .

The Details
Even though Symington's bankruptcy is in its infancy, troubling bits of information have begun to seep from it into public view. These discrepancies are, at this point, little more than that--intriguing anomalies.

Because members of my staff are investigating several of these strange facts, I will mention just one here. It will serve to show just how many withering questions the governor could face over the coming months, as fact after fact dribbles out of bankruptcy court.

In his bankruptcy filing, Symington lists a major accounting firm--Coopers & Lybrand LLP--as a creditor. It is not unusual for a bankrupt to owe accountants money. In this case, however, the bankruptcy petition states the amount owed as "unknown."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Mecklin