The Fifester, the Wifester, the Mother and the Prosecutor

Last Friday afternoon, as the criminal trial of Governor J. Fife Symington III drew to a close, prosecutor David Schindler got one last chance to persuade the jury to find the governor guilty of 19 counts of bank fraud, one count of perjury and one count of attempted extortion.

Schindler is smart. He played on the aversion most middle-class working people have for the elitist rich. Over and over again, he mentioned Symington's pedigree and education as though they were character flaws. Even privileged Harvard graduates, he said, aren't allowed to defraud banks and get away with it.

Then Schindler detailed for the jury the various schemes Symington concocted to con lenders, business partners and the Arizona electorate into thinking he was a highly successful real estate developer at the very time he was losing money and relying on his wealthy wife and his wealthy mother to rescue him.

The jury understood when Schindler poked holes in Fife Symington's Little Richie Rich defense: Blame Everything on the Servants--blame the accountant, the secretary, the chief financial officer, blame anyone but J. Fife Symington III.

The young prosecutor even offered the jury a pathetic, but likely, motivation for the governor's need to be seen as a successful guy--he wanted to be like his great-grandfather, steel robber baron Henry Clay Frick.

Schindler was talking to a jury made up of bookkeepers and computer programmers and housewives and retirees. Unlike Symington, they aren't wealthy. They couldn't buy their way out of their mistakes. One of them, a single working mother, had lost her house because she couldn't make her payments. She didn't have a rich spouse to support her in her time of need.

Schindler was appealing to middle-class common sense. It's very simple, he said, the aristocratic governor is a con artist.

For the first time since the trial began, the governor's wife, Ann Symington, and her entourage of sycophants and relatives seemed absolutely terrified. Ann and her friends knew the fate of her husband would soon be in the hands of the commoners on the jury.

The panicked, helpless expressions worn by Symington's friends and family during the closing minutes of the trial contrasted mightily with their bored, patronizing demeanor during the 12 weeks of the trial itself.

Ann Symington, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, wrote letters and doodled during her husband's criminal trial. Heiress to a multimillion-dollar chemical-manufacturing fortune, she appeared all along to have expected her patrician husband to be found not guilty.

Symington's lawyer John Dowd was as arrogant as his client. Hoping to undermine the credibility of journalists by making them explode, Dowd regularly baited reporters at his press conferences. One day, he called New Times staff writer John Dougherty an "asshole" and smacked Dougherty's tape recorder out of his hand. Another day, Dowd disparaged the work of three Arizona Republic reporters. Like Dougherty, the Republic reporters maintained their dignity.

Not to be outdone, Symington's mother-in-law, Marydell Olin Pritzlaff, twice shoved her matronly elbow into the kidney of a television reporter who inadvertently had backed into Pritzlaff's path while trying to film spectators exiting the courthouse. The aging heiress then stuck out her tongue at a photographer who snapped pictures of the unprovoked assault.

There's a reason members of Fife Symington's entourage behave with such arrogance.

Fife Symington has gotten away with so much for so long, they believed the charges wouldn't stick.

He conned banks and voters into thinking he was a successful businessman when he was really a failure. Once he became governor, his administration was embroiled in a bid-rigging scandal. And Symington even got away with $1.3 million in highly irregular campaign contributions from his wife and his late mother. Those contributions were briefly investigated by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which backed off when Symington's mother and his wife vowed they were legitimate loans.

Now Fife Symington's wife says she never intended to have the money repaid, and the question of illegal campaign contributions is once again looming over the governor's patrician head.

In the event that Fife Symington somehow is acquitted of the current federal charges, it's a good bet that the governor and his wife will be nailed by the Arizona Attorney General's Office for violating state campaign laws.

To understand why the Symingtons may wind up in a courtroom again, you have to know something about how state campaign laws have been enforced.

Three years before Fife Symington became governor, a feisty lawyer named Georgia Staton ran for Maricopa County attorney.

Staton, who is now in private practice, is not like Fife Symington. She comes from different stock--her father was a carpenter, her mother a dance instructor. Her parents taught her to pay her bills.

In 1988, Staton borrowed $20,000 from her sister-in-law to finance her campaign against Richard Romley. When Staton's opponent questioned that loan, former attorney general Bob Corbin opined that a loan from a family member is legal--as long as it is repaid with interest, within a reasonable period of time. But Corbin said a loan from a family member becomes an illegal donation if it is forgiven.

Staton lost the election. She also paid back every penny of interest and principal within one year.

In 1990 and 1991, gubernatorial candidate Fife Symington received a total of $1.3 million in "loans" from his mother and his wife.

After Symington beat his opponent Terry Goddard in a 1991 run-off election, Democrats asked Attorney General Grant Woods to investigate the "loans" from the Symington women.

Former assistant attorney general Rob Carey later said that both women claimed they expected Symington to pay back the $1.3 million in "loans." Trusting the ladies were telling the truth, Grant Woods concluded that the Symingtons did not violate the law.

Woods, who hinted he might run for governor himself should Symington become "unelectable," had no reason to cut Symington any slack.

Arizona Common Cause, a watchdog group that tries to keep elections honest, contested Woods' conclusion in court, contending that both the Staton and Symington loans were illegal donations. But the case was thrown out on a legal technicality that had nothing to do with whether Fife Symington's $1.3 million windfall broke the law.

In 1996, Fife Symington filed for bankruptcy, claiming debts of nearly $25 million.

Shortly after taking her impoverished family on a deluxe vacation to France, Ann Symington said under oath she never intended to be repaid $750,000 she "lent" her husband for the campaign.

Her "loan" suddenly became a legally questionable donation.
Ann Symington also purchased from her mother-in-law Martha Frick Symington a total of $1.8 million in "loans," one third of which wound up funding Symington's campaign. Ann paid Martha $10, then forgave the entire loan.

Because state law then prohibited individual campaign contributions exceeding $550, the Symingtons seem to have broken the law.

Grant Woods has found himself backed into a corner. In 1991, he had said the $1.3 million "loans" were legal. In 1996, when Ann Symington said she never intended to have her husband repay the loans, the federal trial already was looming.

Woods decided to let the federal case play itself out. A politician through and through, he likely saw no reason to alienate Symington Republicans if the feds did the dirty work and sent the governor to prison.

But if Fife Symington skates on the federal charges, Grant Woods will ice him. Sources in the Attorney General's Office say Woods is ready to launch a swift and an immediate investigation of Symington's campaign finances. If Woods chooses to file a civil lawsuit and wins, the state can fine the Symingtons up to $3.9 million.

So, however the jury decides, J. Fife Symington III loses, for once.

Last Friday, when David Schindler told the middle-class members of the jury that even Harvard blue bloods have to follow the same rules as everyone else, the governor seemed upset. His pink neck reddened at the prosecutor's plebeian gall. John Dowd shook his head in haughty disgust. But the theatrics at the defense table were ignored by the jury.

I wonder if the jurors had seen Ann Symington doodle and write thank-you notes during the trial. Had any of the jurors seen Dowd swear at journalists on the courthouse steps? Had they caught a glimpse of Marydell Pritzlaff's unprovoked assault on the television reporter?

No wonder Ann Symington looked so terrified as Schindler wrapped up his remarks. Her husband's fate was in the hands of commoners.

For the first time, Fife Symington would not be able to rely on the rich women in his life to rescue him.

And for the first time, Fife Symington would be held accountable.

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