Ex-Governor Pursues New Ventures; Beset by Scandal, Now He Enjoys Life as Entrepreneur

The Arizona Republic (Phoenix)

September 3, 2007 Monday

Correction Appended

Final Chaser Edition


BYLINE: Mary Jo Pitzl, The Arizona Republic


LENGTH: 2130 words

The Esplanade has been at the center of Fife Symington’s life for more than two decades, the springboard for his first plunge into the public spotlight and the source of many of his tangled legal, financial and political woes.

Today, a decade after criminal convictions on bank- and wire-fraud charges forced his resignation from the Governor’s Office, Symington still is at the Esplanade. Operating out of a fourth-floor office at the retail-and-office project at 24th Street and Camelback Road, he and his partners pursue a variety of ventures through the Symington Private Equity Group.
Symington discussed those and other pursuits in an interview with The Arizona Republic, talking about everything from UFOs and Italian recipes to his days as governor and his political future.

His well-publicized foray into the culinary world has receded as the 62-year-old Republican has taken another turn in his career, following interests in solar technology, political consulting and non-profit work.

Unlike many others who have been brought down by scandal, Symington didn’t disappear from the public radar screen. In recent months, he has been on national television twice, commenting about a longtime interest: lights that appeared over Phoenix in 1997.

“The last I saw, he was on Larry King, talking about those aliens,” said Grant Woods, who as state attorney general often sparred with Gov. Symington.

Not only did Symington appear on King’s CNN show, he gave an interview to ABC’s Nightline, in both cases recounting the “Phoenix Lights” episode, when a set of mysterious lights appeared in the night sky and moved across the Valley. He told viewers he didn’t buy the official explanation that the lights were a plane or flares.

In fact, he said, he saw the lights himself — something that, as governor, he could never admit.

“Can you imagine what you in the press would have done with that?” he said recently, when asked why he didn’t speak candidly about his experience at the time.

Instead, he staged a press conference at which a staffer dressed as an alien. It was an effort, Symington said, to introduce some levity at a time when people were worried about the strange lights.

That Symington can now talk freely about his openness to the possibility of UFOs — something his former aides still cringe about — is further testament that he has moved on from his time of trouble and turmoil and immersed himself in new interests.

The diverse pursuits should be expected, say friends and longtime political observers, who note that Symington never fit the career-politician mold. After all, he is an art-history major turned real-estate developer who rode into the state’s highest office with no political experience but with an appealing message to run government like his business.

Although his political ambitions were likely cut short by his bank-fraud convictions (one of his business loans was structured in such a way that Symington would be absolved from repaying a partner if he had attained the U.S. presidency by 2001), few saw politics as his defining characteristic.

“Before he entered the political arena, he was an entrepreneur,” said Doug Cole, Symington’s long-serving press secretary who remains friends with his former boss to this day. “He’s been practicing his entrepreneurial spirit the last 10 years.”

For his part, Symington said he felt it was important to move far away from politics once he left office.

“I needed to put that behind me,” he said. He knew too many former politicians who could talk only about politics, and he didn’t want to join those ranks.

It was important, he said, to “pivot” into something new and different.

That turned out to be cooking.

After his criminal conviction, while pursing an appeal in federal court, Symington enrolled in the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. It was an intriguing turn for someone so strongly associated with the hard-nosed arenas of real-estate development and politics.

It also was worlds removed from his financial and legal troubles and, possibly, a useful job skill if he had to serve the 30 months he was sentenced to at a federal prison near Las Vegas.

Strong sense of self

Symington’s ability to tack in a different direction was made possible by his strong sense of self, and his access to family money, longtime observers say.

“There isn’t any substitute for brightness, for good brains,” said Bruce Merrill, who has run the Cronkite/Eight Poll at Arizona State University for decades. “And there’s enormous resources there financially.”

Although losses stemming from his real-estate development forced him to declare bankruptcy early in his second term as governor, Symington benefited from the personal wealth of his wife, Ann, who held her assets in accounts separate from her husband.

The money made possible things that wouldn’t be as accessible to the average Joe: After culinary school, he teamed with chef Franco Fazzuoli to open Franco’s Italian Caffe at the Esplanade. Fife and Ann later launched their own cooking school, the Arizona Culinary Institute, which is heading into its sixth year.

Margaret Kenski, pollster for the Symington campaigns in 1990-91 and 1994, attributes the twists and turns in Symington’s career pursuits to a strong sense of self.

She recalled doing a string of three focus groups during his first run for governor and cringing as voters lambasted real-estate developers as crooked operators.

“I thought, ‘I’ll be probably be fired at the end of this,’ because who wants to sit through six hours of this?” Kenski recalled of the groups’ feedback.

To her surprise, Symington welcomed the critical news with a big hug for Kenski and gratitude for bringing some of his negatives to his attention.

“I think he had an unusual ability to listen to criticism, and to chart his course from that,” she said.

Back to the Esplanade

Interestingly, perhaps poetically, that course has always led him back to the southeastern corner of 24th Street and Camelback Road, where he developed the upscale retail-office Esplanade project on what had once been a Christmas-tree lot.

“To me, it’s the best location in town for business,” Symington said. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

He paused and contemplated the success the project has enjoyed, including the addition in recent years of a condominium tower.

“If I had been able to hang on to it for three or four years longer, it would have been worth more than any of my financial statements,” he said.

But the financing surrounding the project in the mid-1980s caught the interest of federal regulators after the failure of Southwest Savings & Loan, which provided financing for the project. Symington sat on the S&L’s board at the time.

That investigation broadened to take in other developments, culminating in Symington’s indictment on 23 criminal charges and the Sept. 3, 1997, conviction on seven of those.
The convictions were reversed on appeal, sparing him imprisonment. Any chance of a retrial was quashed when President Clinton pardoned Symington as Clinton left office in January 2001.

Symington never went far from the Esplanade, often using the Ritz dining room for meetings with visiting dignitaries, friends and business associates. Franco’s opened on the ground floor of the growing Esplanade in 2003, with Symington as pastry chef.

Attired in a white chef’s smock, he knocked out tiramisus and his signature chocolate Governor’s Cake in the location where he had headquartered his real-estate empire years earlier.

Today, Symington maintains offices there with his four partners in the Symington Private Equity Group. Ventures include the Symington Group, a political consultancy that consists of himself and partner Camilla Strongin; various early forays into solar projects, a technology he finds promising despite initial reservations; and venture-capital investments.

He has what he calls a “tag-along interest” in the Ruth’s Chris and Macaroni Grill franchises in Hawaii, and a hospital payment program operates out of a small room in the suite of Symington offices.

His oldest son, Fife IV, has an office next door. Son Tom also has an office in the Esplanade.

Looking to the future

Symington splits his time between Phoenix and Santa Barbara, Calif., where Ann spends the majority of her time, serving as a deacon in the Episcopal Church and looking after her father, John Pritzlaff.

Earlier this year, Symington was elected chairman of the board of the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. It’s not just an honorific post: The garden is starting an expansion sure to create a community backlash.

Symington the political consultant and battle-tested pol is up for the task, promising that opponents will be surprised to find the garden is no longer a silent punching bag.
“Typical campaign war-room tactics,” he said, describing how he plans to steer the board through the expansion. “No attack goes unanswered.”

As for a return to elective politics, Symington is doubtful. He’s flirted with runs for the Legislature and, most recently, governor in 2006, but didn’t follow through. Earlier this year, he was defeated in his last-minute bid for District 11 chairman by ultraconservatives who objected to his loyal backing of U.S. Sen. John McCain. Many interpreted it more as a rebuff of McCain than of Symington.

Despite that defeat, he remains popular with conservative Republicans, who admire his tax-cutting, tough-on-crime policies. But others say a successful run for office would be nearly impossible, given the public record that his criminal case, bankruptcy and civil fraud conviction created. “He’s a hit piece waiting to happen in any campaign, if it were to happen,” one political observer said. “A truthful hit piece.”

For his part, Symington said another run is unlikely.

He’s enjoying his new business ventures and the past five years have brought a “baby tsunami” of six grandchildren.

“Certainly, my skin is thick enough to take it,” he said.

But a lot would be at stake.

“I gave it up once before and literally sacrificed everything. I don’t want to do that again.”

The next round for governor will mark the 20-year anniversary of his own successful run. A likely contender for the top seat in 2010 is Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Democrat whom Symington faced in a 1990 election that was so close that it spilled over into an unprecedented runoff.

“Now, there’s a reason why I would get back into politics,” Symington said, grinning impishly.

Governor’s Office and beyond

Feb. 26, 1991: Wins governor’s seat in unprecedented runoff election.

September 1991: FBI begins investigation of the failure of Southwest Savings & Loan Association, which provided financing for Symington’s Esplanade development, among other projects.

Nov. 8, 1994: Elected to second term by
7-point margin.

Sept. 20, 1995: Symington files for bankruptcy.

June 13, 1996: A federal grand jury indicts him on 23 counts.

Sept. 3, 1997: Symington is convicted of seven counts of bank and wire fraud, in a 17-week jury trial.

Feb. 2, 1998: Symington is sentenced to 30 months in prison and five years of probation.

June 22, 1999: A federal Appeals Court overturns the convictions.

Jan. 20, 2001: As one of his last acts in office, President Clinton pardons Symington.

Feb. 16, 2001: A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge upholds the claim of a group of union pension funds that Symington gave them a false financial statement when arranging financing for the Mercado project in downtown Phoenix. The judge dismisses two other related claims.

Sept. 13, 2001: Symington agrees to pay $2 million to the union pension funds to settle his debt to them. That debt was settled in 2007.

Top achievements

Symington’s biggest accomplishments in office:

Tax cuts

Symington led the charge to cut the state’s income-tax rate, and
he won reductions every year he was in office. The trend abated while the state struggled with budget shortfalls, but the tax cutting resumed with vigor in 2006, when lawmakers approved a two-step reduction in the rate, cutting it a total of 10 percent. Symington
said the tax cuts he championed laid the ground for some of the economic growth the state has seen in recent years.

Indian gaming

Arizona got into the casino business during Symington’s first term as governor as he overcame vigorous objections from legislative leaders and signed limited gaming compacts with the state’s tribes. Never a fan of gambling, Symington said he felt that the state was being pushed hard into this new frontier by federal legislation.

Criminal justice

Symington championed truth-in-sentencing legislation, which included three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing limits. He also launched drives to crack down on juvenile criminals by promising to have juveniles charged with violent crimes such as murder and rape tried as adults and by toughening penalties for gang activities.