The whining from the leftish side of American politics seems to grow less intelligent and more ineffectual by the day, even to a veteran Nixon-Reagan-Bush hater like me. It's as if the Democrats want to prove that Rush Limbaugh is right--that they actually are the party of politically correct minutiae and irrelevancy.

A local example: State Representative Rusty Bowers, R-Dogpatch, pushes a measure that would take $300,000 or so raised from the sale of environmental license plates away from the public schools. The money had been earmarked to fund so-called environmental education. Under Bowers' proposal, most of the money would go instead to the less-than-environmentally sensitive state land department.

Now, a thoughtful observer might suspect Bowers is a political Neanderthal playing to the know-nothing vote, that he made this proposal in the very hope that tree huggers and other Democrats would howl in outrage--a reaction that would garner publicity that, Bowers knows, would endear him to right-wing supporters.

So, of course, the Arizona environmentalists oblige.
A spokesman for the Arizona Heritage Alliance moans that Bowers' silliness would be an "outrageous" disaster.

And, of course, the Arizona Democrats scream loud and long.
A state senator from Tucson groans that people who bought environmental license plates would be "defrauded" by Bowers' evil plan.

The Arizona Republic--that hotbed of environmental concern--even editorializes against the evil Bowers plan.

Now, I've got nothing against teaching kids about recycling and the saving of the Sonoran Desert. But can we have a bit of perspective here?

First off, the $600,000 (plus or minus) that the sale of environmental license plates has generated since its inception a couple of years ago does not even rise to the level of pocket change when you're talking about the cost of primary education in Arizona.

The Phoenix Union High School District expects to get about $18,000 this year from the sale of multicolored license tags.

Phoenix Union has an annual budget of about $145 million. That means the environmental-license-plate funding represents about one one-hundredth of 1 percent--.0001--of the district's budget, a truly irrelevant amount of money.

And actually, Phoenix Union has yet to receive a dime of those funds. It has managed to design and teach environmental classes, anyway. I looked at some curriculum materials and texts for those classes. It's pretty dull, traditional stuff: an ecology segment in the biology course for college prep students; a massaged, environmental form of earth science for the noncollege trackers.

Some of the material, however, seems awfully dumbed down. For example, a district curriculum guide says that after completing Unit Six of this high school course on the environment:

"The student will be able to identify trees as being the source of wood."
I don't see any reason that particular infobit should upset Rusty Bowers, R-Dogpatch, or his troglodyte friends. I assume they and their kids have built fires in the fireplace. But I don't see why anybody truly concerned about this state's disgraceful history on education funding or its continuing disregard for most basic tenets of environmental protection would spend ten minutes worrying about parti-colored license plates. Or how much is paid for them.

A reminder: When the Republic editorial page is on your side, you've made a wrong turn somewhere. Whatever it is you're doing represents no challenge whatsoever to the folks who control most of the money, and virtually all of the political power, in this state.

As a rule, it is more interesting to notice what the Republic ignores than what it publishes. Exhibit A is a story John Dougherty wrote for New Times a few weeks ago ("Anatomy of a Greased Bid," March 16).

When boiled down to essentials, the story makes the case that Governor Fife Symington and his buddy and former aide George Leckie greased a $3 million contract so that it would eventually, somehow, miraculously, go to the governor's personal accounting firm, Coopers & Lybrand. Although the story does not make a prima facie case of bid-rigging, it does quote from a series of official documents that would make almost anyone except Fife Symington, George Leckie and Coopers & Lybrand wonder whether bid-fixing had not actually occurred. It's a good read.

To its credit, Channel 3 sent a reporter to the New Times offices. Dougherty showed the reporter the public documents that backed the case. The reporter aired the story.

In Phoenix journalism, that type of ordinary curiosity represents landmark enterprise.

Don't misunderstand my point. I do not expect any other news organization to accept what New Times prints as gospel.

In his most recent story on Symington, however, Dougherty, a former Arizona journalist of the year, does not quote from mysterious, unidentified sources. His story is based almost entirely on public documents, obtained after months of legal jockeying with the governor and his various executive-branch minions. Anyone who wondered whether the story was true, then, would not have to rely at all on New Times, Dougherty or me. The documents would tell the tale.

And the tale they tell is damned important. The documents suggest that the second of two contracts involving Project SLIM--the governor's attempt to streamline state government--was awarded on the basis of inside information. As I said, the documents alone do not prove a case of criminal collusion. But they certainly raise questions in that regard. And there is something odd about the Republic's slowness in following the story. You see, the Republic published a series of genuinely admirable stories about the first Project SLIM contract, which also went to Coopers & Lybrand. The Republic stories also raised substantial questions about the bidding process on Project SLIM.

The Republic's series, when combined with Dougherty's piece, could make for the type of journalism that most editors call "sexy."

Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley supposedly investigated the first contract and--surprise--found nothing amiss. But a key Coopers & Lybrand memorandum that suggests shenanigans on the second contract--a memo that is the backbone of Dougherty's story--has been in the possession of Romley's investigators for quite some time.

Now, if Channel 3 is to be believed, state Attorney General Grant Woods is investigating the whole Project SLIM situation.

And Grant Woods and Rick Romley despise one another. And Fife Symington has a genuine fear-and-loathing relationship with Grant Woods. All of this would seem to provide some grist for the daily journalism mill. By the time I wrote this column, though, I had no indication that anyone at the Republic or the Phoenix Gazette had made even elementary attempts to follow Dougherty's story.

The weekend after the story appeared, however, the Republic did print an opinion piece by George Leckie, the former aide to Symington. Leckie's piece claimed, in a hideously vague fashion, that the Republic's previous reporting on him had been less than accurate.

So here are some questions for Republic management: Were your reporters right or wrong to raise questions about that first Project SLIM contract? If the reporters were wrong, where is the correction? And if they were right, why in the world did you give someone like George Leckie nearly half a page of very expensive news space to call your hardworking reporters liars?

Since we're talking about Symington and sleaze, shouldn't we be talking about the Esplanade?

I'm not so sure anymore.
Unless the federal government is ready to indict our sitting governor--and I mean indict him within the next 60 days or so--it should announce he is cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in regard to Southwest Savings and Loan. And then the feds should get down on their knees and apologize.

To Fife Symington and all the citizens of Arizona.
I know, I know. It really is hard to countenance the notion that our governor might not be a criminal. After all, the federal government has alleged in court documents that he cost us all something on the order of $200 million in the Camelback Esplanade/Southwest Savings escapade.

But fair is fair. And the feds just aren't playing anywhere near fair with Symington.

Think about it. The RTC sues him for the 200 mil. Then it settles for next to nothing, claiming that the gov's too broke to bother suing. Of course, the PR jerks at the RTC continue to claim they had the goods on Fife all the time. They just didn't think a trial made economic sense.

Oh, I see.
In the meantime, the FBI and out-of-state federal prosecutors start parading witnesses in front of the press room at the federal courthouse, just to make sure our brain-dead local press can't miss the obvious: A federal grand jury investigation is going on. But all through 1994, all through an election year, nothing happens. A lot of rumors are spread. News reports about this or that subpoena surface.

In fact, my boss, Michael Lacey, prints a column suggesting that there is pretty good reason to wonder whether the Fifester had misled financial institutions about the state of his economic health when applying for loans. There is reason, because the Fifester's personal secretary has said there is reason to wonder.

But the FBI has been investigating J. Fife Symington III for more than three years now in regard to the Southwest Savings disaster. The civil-side boys--the RTC, the FSLIC and all of the other alphabet-soup agencies--were groping around long before that.

I tried to call the prosecutor who had, according to news reports, been investigating Governor Three Sticks. The prosecutor had been based in the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office. A PR minion there said that prosecutor had left the office "a long time ago."

I asked her who took over the Symington case. Even though the investigation has been reported in countless newspapers, the PR woman said she could not "confirm or deny" that an investigation was or wasn't under way.

Enough's enough. Spare us the can't-confirm-or-deny doublespeak. This isn't a game. Fife Symington is a real person, with a real wife and real friends and real human feelings, and he is, for better or worse, the governor of Arizona.

Charge him or give up.
And if you give up, apologize to us all for how badly you've behaved.
On your knees, feds. On your knees.

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John Mecklin