Freshly returned from a vacation in Mexico two weeks ago, Governor J. Fife Symington III summoned reporters to an airport news conference to confirm that his once-extensive real estate holdings are wiped out. The governor, who had campaigned for office on his business prowess, estimated that he lost between $10 million and $12 million in equity from his various failed ventures, and cast himself as just another "normal, hardworking guy" brought down by the recession.

The governor's fit of openness about his personal finances coincided with his plan, since scrapped in the face of harsh criticism, to set up a legal-defense fund. Symington planned to ask for donations to help pay the lawyers defending him in a lawsuit filed by the Resolution Trust Corporation over Symington's alleged role in the failure of Southwest Savings and Loan.

A financial-disclosure report filed three days later revealed, to little surprise, that Symington and his wife, Ann, are still worth at least $2.3 million, although most of the money is Ann's.

It would appear that the governor, or his family, could afford to pay for his defense, critics say. It would also appear that Symington will need the best defense he can buy.

According to court records and Symington's own financial disclosure, the two defenses the governor has invoked most often in response to the RTC complaint have been seriously undercut as his finances have gone south.

Further, the governor's recent decision to transfer a valuable piece of property into his wife's name may attract government scrutiny if the RTC wins its lawsuit against him.

In its suit, the RTC charges that bad loans made by Southwest for Symington's Esplanade development--approved when Symington was on the S&L's board of directors--will cost taxpayers more than $40 million.

In his defense, Symington has argued that the loans were legal, because they had been approved by federal regulators. He has also maintained that when the Esplanade becomes profitable, the loans will be paid back and the taxpaying public won't lose a dime.

In early January, however, the RTC filed with the court sworn declarations from two former ranking officials of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco that directly challenge Symington's claim to have had proper regulatory approval for the loans.

In the statements, former FHLB vice president Charles Deardorf and supervisor John Behrens attest that--although their approval should have been sought before Southwest made loans to one of its own directors--they were not informed of the Esplanade deal until after the fact.

Symington and the S&L, the men say, misled them by not divulging that the Esplanade was already a done deal before it was brought to their attention.

"The transaction was presented to [regulators] by Southwest as a 'proposed' transaction, when in fact the transaction had already been consummated," Behrens' statement says.

Deardorf's statement says that he met with Symington and another bank official in November 1983, and was told the Esplanade deal was still just a proposal. In fact, the S&L's board had approved the first Esplanade loans about two months earlier.

Symington's other previously invoked public defense, that the loans will someday be paid back, also seems to be withering.

According to his financial-disclosure form, Symington has little stake left in the glitzy office towers and hotel on Camelback Road. His equity in each of the various partnerships that make up the Esplanade is listed at less than $25,000.

As his finances have dwindled, records show, the project's two Japanese partners have taken over ownership of most of it.

One observer estimates that the Japanese backers now own more than 90 percent of the Esplanade. In that case, the Esplanade would have to make mountains of money before Symington's share of the profits would approach the $41 million sought by the RTC.

Gary Stuart, Symington's attorney on the RTC suit, says the profitability of the Esplanade could be an issue at trial. But it is far too early in the lawsuit to say how Symington's losses on the Esplanade will affect his defense in the case, he says.

Stuart says he cannot comment on the statements by Deardorf and Behrens on the regulatory approval of the loans.

Symington may also face trouble with the government over a parcel of undeveloped land in Tucson that he gave to his wife late last year.

Since the RTC suit was filed in 1991, Symington's attorneys have consistently fought to keep Ann Symington's personal fortune safe from any judgment that the government might win against her husband.

Citing a prenuptial agreement the couple signed, Symington's lawyers have argued that Ann Symington's trusts and investments--which now make up the bulk of the couple's worth--are not community property.

Early last December, the RTC agreed to drop Ann Symington from the suit and not pursue her sole and separate property if it wins a judgment against the governor that includes the couple's home at the base of Camelback Mountain, which Ann Symington owns. Only the couple's community property and the governor's own depleted holdings would be at risk.

Just nine days after the agreement was reached, Symington and two of his business partners placed a prime piece of Tucson investment property under Ann Symington's name.

The undeveloped, three-acre lot in the Catalina Mountains northwest of Tucson was purchased by the Symingtons and two business partners in 1987. The governor and his wife jointly owned 50 percent of the lot, with Symington business partners Stephen Todd and James Cockerham each owning 25 percent.

On December 12 of last year, Pima County land records show, Todd and Cockerham sold their shares in the property to Ann Symington for an undisclosed sum.

The governor then made a gift of his share of the property--which was appraised by the Pima County Assessor's Office at just over $127,000--to his wife.

In order to have his wife dropped from the RTC lawsuit, Symington had agreed, among other things, that any gifts he made to his wife "for less than full and fair consideration" would still be considered community property.

RTC spokesman Steve Katsanos said he could not comment on the propriety of the land transfer.

Jay Wiley, another Symington attorney, says Symington was not trying to shield the investment from a potential judgment.

"I'm not sure that [the agreement with the RTC] prohibits the transfer. It just says if there was a gift, it would eventually be subject to the RTC if there is a judgment ever recovered," Wiley says. "I don't believe the governor and Mrs. Symington are going to have their affairs governed by an eventuality they don't ever anticipate happening--a judgment by the

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David Pasztor