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TREES ARE MADE OF WOOD; THE FIFESTER IS HUMAN

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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."

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John Mecklin