The Christmas party of 1986 is still a bitter memory for Liz Thornton and her co-workers at Southwest Savings and Loan. It was at that party that the thrift's executives announced that times were tough and there would be no Christmas bonuses. Each employee was given a cheap teddy bear and a Christmas tree ornament--as though the trinkets would somehow make up for the absent bonuses.

Thornton, a widow who earned about $20,000 yearly as a clerk in the check-clearing department, had been counting on the bonus to buy presents for her two children.

It galled the workers that the executives got their Christmas bonuses--holiday checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It was almost as if they were rubbing our noses in it," says Eva Staples, who worked with Thornton. Staples recalls that Southwest CEO Donald Lewis received holiday checks totaling about $250,000 that year.

"They knew the company was in trouble and wanted to get what they could," says Staples. When Liz Thornton complained to her supervisor about the inequity, she was told: "Don't let this get out of the department. Keep it to yourself."

Five years later, Christmas is even worse for Liz Thornton.
Southwest Savings, which once financed money-losing real estate ventures for people like current Governor J. Fife Symington III, has been taken over by the federal government and is being dismantled. Thornton and her co-workers have been told they will be laid off next month. She now sees the bonus episode as just another example of greedy mismanagement that led Southwest Savings to insolvency.

"It irritates me no end that the governor and the other directors are thriving, while I see people all around me going down the tubes," says Thornton. "We all have families and many of us are single parents. What happened to Southwest isn't our fault. We didn't do it. We worked hard."

Thornton, 41, isn't keeping her anger to herself. She and fellow co-workers Roberta Robinson, 51, and Pat Dwyer, 50, have devised some quirky therapy to channel their anger and "keep sane."

They've sent a petition to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) demanding that the downfall of Southwest Savings be thoroughly investigated.

On Halloween, they carved a pumpkin in Symington's image and displayed it in the lobby of the building that used to be the headquarters of Southwest Savings.

"What do we have to lose?" says Roberta Robinson. "Nothing."
The three women and many of their co-workers are especially angry at the executives and directors--like Fife Symington--who profited from the liberal lending policies that led to Southwest's demise. (Symington was on the board of directors when some of the imprudent financial decisions were made, federal regulators allege.)

The three middle-aged women, who each earn about $20,000 a year, say they've sent out scores of resumes. But largely because of their ages and the tight job market, they've been unable to find prospective jobs that pay more than minimum wage, they say.

For the first time in their lives, they say, they're saddled with very real fears of poverty, homelessness and lack of health insurance. Recently, they learned that they will receive only two weeks' severance pay when they are laid off in December. And, even worse, they've received hints that they won't get their pensions.

As the day of their layoff nears, the women have little to do in the Southwest offices. "I pack boxes and boxes of files," says Robinson, who works in the loan department. "I wonder to myself, `Why am I doing this? Why am I packing away my job?'"

Robinson, Thornton and Dwyer stayed on at Southwest Savings after it was taken over by the government in 1989. They were among the 175 people--out of 800--who remained on board as the thrift was dismantled by the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) and sold off bit by bit--at a $1 billion loss to American taxpayers.

Many of Southwest's employees blame the thrift's former directors. So do some federal investigators.

Symington himself was singled out by federal regulators as early as 1984 for twice violating banking law in connection with his Camelback Esplanade project at 24th Street and Camelback in Phoenix. (New Times profiled the failed thrift in "The Loan Wolf," October 9.) Federal officials now estimate that the Esplanade will be posted as a $52 million loss on Southwest's books. Symington, who was on the thrift's board from 1972 to 1984, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

RTC lawyers alleged last June, in a memo made public by the Washington Post, that Symington invested only $400 of his own money in the Esplanade deal, while reaping development fees exceeding $8 million.

The RTC and FDIC attorneys have balked on saying whether they'll sue Symington and other directors of Southwest for mismanagement or whether they'll turn the case over to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.

After the Post story, the slow-moving investigation into Southwest ground to a halt and a new probe was launched to determine who blew the whistle on the RTC's foot-dragging.

| Some suspect that all of this might have something to do with the fact that the two lawyers who head the legal divisions of the RTC and FDIC are friends and former partners in the Phoenix law firm of O'Connor, Cavanagh, Anderson, Westover, Killingsworth and Beshears, which once represented Southwest. Al Byrne, the head of the FDIC legal division, ordered RTC legal-division lawyers not to charge Symington with converting Southwest's funds to his own use, according to the Post.

Caryl Anderson, a spokeswoman for Byrne, denies that Byrne has a conflict of interest with either Symington or Southwest.

However, Byrne's former partner Gerald Jacobs, who now heads the RTC's legal division, acknowledges that he himself has a potential conflict of interest. Because of that, he tells New Times, he has not made decisions on either Southwest or Symington.

The RTC has only until February 17 to sue any of the directors for mismanagement. The fact that time is running out only fuels the anger of Southwest workers Liz Thornton, Pat Dwyer and Roberta Robinson.

The women say they take little comfort in the assertion that congressional hearings on Southwest's tailspin may be held this December by Representative Carroll Hubbard, a Kentucky Democrat.

"People in high places can do whatever they want to and never get punished," says Thornton. "I don't know of any place in the world where that's not true." She pauses and then adds, "I worry about being out in the street for the first time in my life."

What worries Pat Dwyer most, she says, is that she no longer will be able to afford health insurance--and she recently discovered she has cancer. Dwyer, who also is single, says she dreads having to depend on her grown children for help.

Robinson, whose husband earns about $12,000 a year as a data processor for Maricopa County, considers herself a bit more fortunate than her friends Thornton and Dwyer because she gets health insurance through her husband's job. But she says that after she's laid off she won't be able to afford to keep her 1986 Honda Prelude because of insurance and maintenance costs.

Some Southwest employees have checked into Camelback Hospital and other mental-health clinics because of stress, but Thornton, Dwyer and Robinson found creative ways to release their anger.

In October, in the wake of a New Times article detailing the demise of Southwest Savings and the government's failure to investigate or take action against board members, they drew up their petition to the FDIC.

Most of their colleagues at Southwest, however, refused to sign because they feared for their jobs. "All I could say," Robinson recalls, "was `What are you afraid of? You won't have any job in December.'" In the end, 48 people signed the petition, many of them family members, friends and neighbors.

The three women say they didn't expect that their petition would force the FDIC to take action. But it was a way to at least "do something," says Robinson.

What annoys them is that the FDIC never has acknowledged receiving the petition. It was as though they mailed the document into a black hole.

Their most creative method of venting anger--so far, that is--has been the Symington pumpkin. The pumpkin, carved by Dwyer and Robinson, won second place in a contest sponsored by the landlord of the Central Avenue skyscraper that housed Southwest's headquarters.

Surrounding it was a display of newspaper clippings detailing the governor's public relations nightmares: his failed businesses, problems with federal regulators and his hiring of ex-press secretary Annette Alvarez, a college dropout, as his executive assistant for international relations. The women say they're irked that Alvarez's annual salary of $60,000 is as large as the total of their three salaries.

The Symington pumpkin itself featured a scowl and cotton balls for eyebrows. Propped next to it were such signs as "Ha. Ha. Happy Halloween," "The laughs are on us" and "Real estate knuckleheads."

"We try to keep laughing," says Dwyer.

"It irritates me no end that the governor and the other directors are thriving, while I see people all around me going down the tubes."

The Symington pumpkin itself featured a scowl and cotton balls for eyebrows.