The Indomitable Dougherty

The bailiff read the jury's verdict: Defendant John Fife Symington III was guilty on seven counts of fraud.

Last Wednesday, as Judge Roger Strand began wrapping up the most important white-collar-fraud trial in Arizona history, the governor was impassive.

Still as a rock, Symington listened to Judge Strand announce his sentencing date, compliment the conscientious jury, adjourn the court.

Then the newly convicted felon, his wife and their bodyguards hightailed it out of the courtroom through a side door. Accustomed to upper-class privilege, the Symingtons took a secret route through the federal court building to the underground parking garage, and from there they were chauffeured back to the governor's office on West Washington Street.

For obvious reasons, the felon and his wife wanted to avoid reporters.
And there were so many reporters at the courthouse that day. There were television and newspaper and radio reporters, reporters from New York and from California.

After court adjourned, the journalists crammed themselves into elevators or loped down the stairs. Some remained at the courthouse interviewing cafeteria workers, janitors, jurors, court experts and anyone who happened to pass on the street. Scores of others raced over to the State Capitol to hear the governor resign and then to cover the press conference held by Symington's bellicose attorney, John Dowd. Still others sped over to the U.S. Attorney's press conference at the FBI office.

As they ran every which way, reporters carted along briefcases, cellular phones, tape recorders, laptop computers, cameras, microphones.

They didn't want to miss a thing.

Of course, they were already about six years behind John Dougherty; they had some catching up to do.

Since 1991, Dougherty, who joined New Times in 1993, has tenaciously broken story after story on Symington's financial deceits.

For most of the six years he covered the governor, Dougherty was the only reporter around who stayed on Symington's trail. The Arizona Republic, whose owners and high-level managers were friends of the governor and his wealthy, politically active mother, gave little serious coverage to the corruption until Symington went bankrupt in 1995.

Dougherty broke stories on the governor's unsavory past, right and left. His Symington coverage earned him the Arizona Press Club's top award for three years. He was the first to report on the federal grand jury investigation of the governor; the first to report on the governor's conflicting financial statements; the first to thoroughly investigate the governor's shady dealings surrounding the Mercado and the Esplanade; the first to expose that the governor raided his campaign finances to pay the taxes of his reputed mistress, Annette Alvarez; the first to link the governor with unsavory business types in Mexico.

Like any other white-collar con man, J. Fife Symington III tried to hide his crimes behind a tangle of financial documents, knowing that few cops and fewer reporters would have the energy or the expertise to delve into them. But Dougherty did.

It's this simple: Dougherty's stories look like blueprints for the criminal case against J. Fife Symington III. Dougherty's Symington stories are accurate, based on public records that the reporter dug up by inspecting file after file at practically every state and federal agency in Phoenix. The research was frustrating and time-consuming. But Dougherty examined financial records line by line, uncovered the lies.

Once he proved to himself that Symington had lied, he wanted his readers to know the truth.

Meanwhile, Dougherty was battered by Symington's team of public relations experts, defense lawyers and aides.

They bullied him. They denied him public records. They threatened his bosses with lawsuits. They ridiculed him. They lied about him.

Attorney John Dowd, especially, tried to portray Dougherty to anyone who would listen as a sicko whose personal demons drove him to try to destroy the good governor.

John Dowd had reason to hate Dougherty.
In 1989, Dougherty, then a reporter for the Dayton Daily News, broke the stories that led to a televised congressional hearing on the Keating Five. In that political scandal, financier Charles Keating gave five senators lavish trips, donations and gifts apparently in exchange for their votes on legislation that would make him even richer. Two Arizona senators, Dennis DeConcini and John McCain, had enjoyed Keating's largess.

John Dowd defended Senator John McCain in the Keating Five hearings in Congress.

So Dowd knew as early as 1989 that Dougherty's factual reporting simply could not be disputed.

Dowd knew it would be much smarter to try to destroy the reporter's professional reputation.

Dougherty left Dayton, Ohio, and eventually landed at the Mesa Tribune in August 1991. In October, he began investigating the relationship between Arizona's new governor, Fife Symington, and a failed savings and loan called Southwest Savings, and its disastrous investment in Symington's Camelback Esplanade project, a deal that occurred while Symington sat on Southwest's board.

By 1992, Dougherty's front-page stories in the Trib detailed how the governor in testimony and speeches contradicted what the public records said. The governor claimed he was successful, but records showed his real estate empire was in tatters.

At the time, Symington was a rising star in national Republican politics. And Dougherty's stories, which were picked up by the wire services, were doing some damage.

John Dowd, now Symington's lawyer, couldn't dispute the facts in the stories, so he went after the reporter instead.

In 1992, Dowd and Jay Smith, a high-priced Washington, D.C., public relations expert, met with Dougherty and the Trib editorial board in Mesa.

At the meeting, Dowd and Smith attacked Dougherty's integrity, then Smith challenged Dougherty to a fistfight outside.

For the first and last time, Dougherty took the bait.
"Let's go," Dougherty said, slamming his hand down on his tape recorder with such force that he broke it.

There was no fight.
But Dowd got exactly what he wanted--Dougherty was pulled off the story by unsupportive management at the Trib. He was too hotheaded, they said.

They were fools.

In March 1993, Dougherty began working for New Times. His coverage of the governor intensified.

Symington must have been terrified. He knew Dougherty's reporting could bring him down, and refused to talk to Dougherty.

Despite the governor's silence, Dougherty stayed on the story. He kept turning up documents pointing to financial crimes. Hundreds of documents--lease agreements, loan applications, financial statements. Later those same documents would be introduced as evidence at the trial.

In 1996, the feds indicted the governor.
During the 1997 trial, Dougherty, the only reporter who had explored the financial records inside and out, was often asked by other reporters to explain the details and nuances of the case. That infuriated John Dowd, because it thwarted his efforts to spin the media on how Symington was being wronged by the federal prosecutors.

Dowd was desperate.
Again, he went after Dougherty.
Dowd baited Dougherty day after day at courthouse press conferences in an effort to destroy his credibility with other reporters, with the public.

"You're an asshole," Dowd told Dougherty more than once.
Early on in the trial coverage, Dowd would respond to Dougherty's questions by asking the reporter, "What planet are you from?".

Once when Dougherty asked him a legitimate question about trial testimony, Dowd got so angry he slapped Dougherty's tape recorder out of the reporter's hand, sent it skidding into the street, the second of Dougherty's tape recorders to bite the dust because of Dowd's baiting.

But this time, Dowd, not Dougherty, had lost control.

Last Wednesday, after the verdict had been delivered, Dougherty covered Symington's resignation speech.

Then Dowd marched over to the podium to answer questions.
Always trying to sway public opinion for his client the criminal, Dowd must have figured that, among the many reporters present, there would surely be a few ignorant enough to swallow his nonsense about how the ex-governor had solid grounds for a mistrial.

Before he started, Dowd looked out at the herd of reporters. John Dougherty was sitting in the front row.

Certainly, the problem, as Dowd must have seen it, was that Dougherty would stay on the story, just because he wanted his readers to know the truth.

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at [email protected]

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Terry Greene Sterling