He's Back

A grinning J. Fife Symington III steps into the 10th-floor elevator at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, joining three reporters who are covering his civil fraud trial. Three union pension funds seek to block the bankruptcy and win an $18 million judgment against him.

"A few years ago, this is the last place I would have gone," Symington says, triggering a round of laughs. "But now, I'm just one of the guys."

All month, Symington has gone to great lengths to shed the elitist image he once projected so determinedly. Instead of evading the press, he now invites reporters to his lawyer's office for private discussions over chocolate chip cookies and soft drinks. Relaxed, jocular and using blunt language to explain his case, Symington appears to be a transformed man.

Gone, apparently, is the vindictive persona he carried as governor, which helped him ram through a conservative political agenda highlighted by a series of tax cuts. He has mellowed into an easygoing yet still immensely self-confident man.

He's free from the fear of being forced out as governor. That's happened. He's survived. And he's happy.

"I have a whole other life now that is beyond all of this," he says, referring to his erstwhile political and development careers.

During the 1980s, Symington built a real estate empire that culminated with the construction of the $200 million Camelback Esplanade and his decision to seek the governor's chair. Glory was short-lived, however, despite being elected governor in 1991. By the early 1990s, Symington was surrounded by an array of high-priced accountants, spin doctors and lawyers who'd been hired to fend off civil and criminal charges that he defrauded lenders as he climbed his way to the top. The shield worked for a while, allowing Symington to win reelection in 1994, even though voters knew he was under criminal investigation.

In mid-1996, federal prosecutors finally indicted Symington, charging him with 23 felonies. The governor accelerated his Nixonian stonewalling tactics as his imperial governorship began to crumble. He gave orders to state agencies not to talk to certain reporters, and blasted his staunchest media ally, the Arizona Republic, for being unfair.

Symington was convicted of seven felony counts on September 3, 1997, and resigned as governor two days later. His conviction was overturned last June by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on a technicality. His 30-month prison sentence was vacated; he never served a day. (See "Feds Will Retry Symington on Criminal Counts, Sources Say")

The criminal trial was a turning point for Symington. In the ensuing years, Symington says he has reshaped his life. He attended a culinary school and began a new career as an apprentice chef at the upscale Franco's Trattoria in Scottsdale.

"Cooking has been good for me, politics wasn't," Symington says. "That's where I derive a lot of personal satisfaction and fun and it is very rewarding."

Symington vows he's through with politics, although it is apparent he misses the power and the challenge of exercising his considerable political will. Other issues, he says, have taken a higher priority.

"I'm more concerned about my family and just getting this behind me," he says. "This has been a long, a long road. And now with the final Ninth Circuit opinion, I basically, in effect, was removed from office incorrectly. And so it's good to kind of correct the record. As time goes on, more facts come out. I feel good about that."

It's difficult to fathom why Symington feels good about facts coming out during the bankruptcy fraud trial, which stem from his disastrous days as a real estate developer. He seems impervious to the pummeling he takes day after day as his sordid finances get yet another public airing.

He emerges from the courtroom smiling, often expressing satisfaction with his performance on the witness stand, where he spars for five hours a day with Michael Manning, attorney for the pension funds. Observers can't help but wonder whether Symington realizes how desperate his position appears.

But Symington's demeanor is not without foundation. His optimism is based in the belief that after more than two weeks of testimony, the pension funds have yet to prove a crucial point.

So far, the pension funds have made a solid case that Symington's financial statement given to the pension funds was plagued with inaccuracies and misleading. But that's only half the battle. The pension funds also still must prove they reasonably relied on Symington's personal financial statement when they loaned his real estate partnership $10 million.

If Symington wins, he'll be free of an $18 million judgment. If he loses, he knows he won't be paying the debt anytime soon -- at least out of his own pocket.