J. Fife Symington III was smiling incessantly and reached out to shake my hand. There was a blissed-out look in his eyes.
"A really beautiful day--and the weather was perfect!" Symington said, still pressing my flesh.
The barkeeps were pouring expensive liquor at this September 18 afternoon event, though I had no idea what the Governor was drinking. Perhaps, I thought, his ebullience might be attributable to the comfortable surroundings. We were chatting inside a lovely ballroom salon at the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the world-class Esplanade project that Symington developed.
"The president was there, you know, shaking everyone's hands," Symington continued. "It was just great."
The Governor released his friendly grip, but he kept on beaming. At last I knew what he was talking about--President Bush's trip earlier in the day to the Grand Canyon--though the banter still seemed strange.
After all, the Governor had not been having a good week. That same day a notice of default was filed against a Symington partnership over his unpaid multimillion-dollar loan on the Mercado shopping center. One of the Governor's aides admitted there was "a good chance" he might lose the property and two others. Five days earlier, the news was worse. On Friday, September 13, the Washington Post published a Resolution Trust Corporation legal memo accusing him of "blatant self-dealing" while a director of Southwest Savings & Loan. The memo by high-ranking government lawyers recommended that Symington be sued for recovery of millions of taxpayer dollars.
"Say, I saw you on Channel 12's Town Hall the other night and you seemed rather emotional," Symington joked. The Governor was referring to a recent television show hosted by Tom Brokaw on the media's role in society. On the show, I talked about a "hypothetical" businessman who runs for office on the strength of his business skills yet refuses to disclose to the public the very financial information that would prove his commercial success.
"You know, we really should sit down over lunch together," the Governor suggested. He can be such a pleasant fellow.
Lunch wasn't on my mind, but I did have a few questions for the Governor. I asked Symington whether he was ever going to reveal the supposed promissory notes that he gave his wife and mother last year in exchange for roughly $1.3 million in campaign loans.
"Haven't I disclosed all that?" he replied.
No. You've admitted that you got the money, I said, but you've never shown any evidence of the notes themselves.
State law makes it illegal for a rich politician to have his family give him enough cash to buy an election. Donations were limited to $550 per person in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign. Under a generous interpretation of the law by a former attorney general, a family member can "lend" to a candidate funds in excess of the $550-contribution limit, but these loans must be evidenced by notes. In other words, Fife's mother and wife, who exceeded contribution limits by $1,293,000, cannot simply buy the governor's mansion the way they buy the china. Fife must pay these loans back. What's more, the loans must be backed by genuine notes. We aren't supposed to take his word for it.
"Yeah, well, they're 9 percent coupons and they've got three- or five-year payoffs, I forget which." Symington had lost that happy glow and started searching the salon for a more suitable mealtime companion.
Can I see them? Can the public see copies of the notes?
"You don't think I'm going to make things easy for you, do you?" Symington said. That was it for our little chat. The Governor was going, and his smile was gone.
Just one more question, Fife. Have you paid off the family loans?
The Governor tarried. His countenance had become more combative than serene.
"I've paid off a big chunk."
But can we see the notes themselves, Governor? Can we see the payoff schedule?
Symington turned on his heels and, with a horizontal wave of his arm, pointed imperiously in the direction of his press secretary, Doug Cole. "Talk to him," Symington ordered.
That was fine. Doug Cole is a tall, thin, amiable Fife-guard, much younger looking in person than he sounds on the telephone. I told him what I wanted to know, and what records I wanted to see.
First, the records: I requested copies of all promissory notes given in the last gubernatorial campaign by Fife Symington to his mother Martha and wife Ann in exchange for loans totaling nearly $1.3 million.
Second, the information: I asked for the terms of the loans (the interest rate, payoff schedule and so on), whether Symington had repaid the loans and, if so, how much had he paid.