Just Desserts

Have you heard the one about the onetime felon who threw a fund raiser for the guy who wanted to be the county's top prosecutor?

Mike Bailey, one of several candidates hoping to succeed outgoing Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, started off his remarks with a wisecrack during a debate last week at Arizona State University, describing an invitation he recently received via e-mail.

"I got invited by Fife Symington to a fund raiser. . . . But I decided to come here instead and talk about actually prosecuting cases."

The comment cracked up most of the audience of about 100 -- almost all of them county prosecutors or public defenders.

But that was no joke.

Turns out, the ex-Arizona governor really was hosting a fund raiser that evening, April 20, for none other than Andrew Pacheco, arguably the front-runner for the Republican nomination and the most notable candidate missing from the slate of six who dutifully participated in the debate.

Pacheco apparently decided that skipping the debate -- which he did -- was one thing, but not being available to grip-and-grin with Fife and company might seem, well, impolitic.

Actually, the notion of a once-convicted felon hosting a big money reception for a man who wants to be the county's chief law enforcement attorney is funny.

Symington resigned from office in September 1997 after a federal jury convicted him of seven charges that he'd defrauded lenders during a real estate deal in the 1980s. The ex-gov never served a day behind bars, though the judge in his case sentenced him to 30 months in prison. An appeals court overturned the convictions in June 1999, ruling that the judge improperly had removed a juror who was in favor of acquittal. Former president Bill Clinton then pardoned Symington on his own last day in office in January 2001, just as federal prosecutors were preparing to reindict the onetime "truth-in-sentencing" Republican.

Pacheco, who worked as a prosecutor at the County Attorney's Office before moving down the street to the U.S. Attorney's Office a few years ago, had a choice April 20: He could slug it out at ASU or hobnob with the pols at Franco's Italian Caffe at the Camelback Esplanade, where Symington serves as the pastry chef.

The fund raiser's location is official irony #2: The financial machinations that led to four of Symington's felony convictions stemmed from the 1980s construction of the Esplanade, at 24th Street and Camelback.

The suggested "minimum contribution," according to the invitation from "The Honorable Fife Symington," was $175.

Quoting Symington, it said, "I've spent some time in court, so I know a good prosecutor when I see one. Andrew Pacheco has the courage and integrity to make a great Maricopa County Attorney."

Back at ASU, each candidate tried to prove to the audience that he, not his lily-livered, bleeding-heart opponents, would be the meanest, baddest m-fer that any criminal has ever seen.

Joining Republican Bailey at the debate were fellow GOPers Jerry Landau, Tom McCauley, Rick Poster and Andrew Thomas. Landau is a career deputy county attorney who recently won the expected, but rather muted, endorsement of his longtime boss, Romley. Along for the ride was the lone Democrat, Don Harris, a lifelong Republican until he had an epiphany a few months ago and switched parties -- that epiphany obviously being that his sole competition on the Democratic side will be unknown Jonathan Warshaw, the only other candidate who was missing in action.

Thomas, who got thumped by Terry Goddard in the 2002 race for Arizona Attorney General, clearly talks the toughest of them all, though more on that as the race progresses. The testiest moment came when Thomas snapped at Bailey for "attacking me," after Bailey questioned Thomas' self-described credentials as an experienced prosecutor and the only candidate with substantial managerial experience in the private sector.

Debate moderator Gary Lowenthal, a noted criminal-law professor at ASU's College of Law, invoked Pacheco's name only once, when he referred to "the previous commitment" that kept the candidate from appearing at the debate.

Lowenthal is too civil to say that Symington's fund raiser was akin to throwing the ultimate bake sale for a new political ally. Safe to say that Pacheco won't have such a "cake walk" in the future.

After the debate ended, an extremely unofficial survey of those in attendance concluded that Bailey and Harris had acquitted (sorry to use that word, law-and-order dudes) themselves somewhat better than their opponents. But the specter of the well-financed and glaringly absent Pacheco loomed over the proceedings.

Pacheco did not return calls from New Times for comment on his choice of event.

U.S. senators John McCain and Jon Kyl apparently agree with Symington, having publicly endorsed Pacheco in March at a joint press conference. "Andrew's background of tackling the New Mexican Mafia and other organized crime groups is ideal for this job," Kyl said at the time.

Whether Symington's fiscal shenanigans in the 1980s could be considered "organized crime" should best be left for the legal beagles. Maybe a question for the next debate?

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