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Arizonans Grimace As Another Leader Confronts Charges

In the past decade alone, Arizonans have endured the humiliation of a governor's impeachment and removal, the conviction of seven state legislators in a corruption case, and the disciplining of its two US senators over their ties to convicted financier Charles Keating Jr.

The latest political drama involves the federal indictment of Gov. Fife Symington (R) - who declared personal bankruptcy last year - on 23 counts stemming from his background as a real-estate developer.

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What gives in the land of the saguaro cactus and the Grand Canyon? In a bygone era, this state produced such political giants as Barry Goldwater, John Rhodes, and Morris Udall.

Politics in Arizona today reflect a general trend, say some analysts, of a dearth of quality people drawn to public service.

Rob Melnick, director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, says the state has suffered "a run of bad luck" in its choice of elected officials.

But Arizona, he contends, also is indicative of the changing nature of leadership nationwide in which fewer talented people "are willing to put up with the intense scrutiny, the extraordinarily expensive campaigning and all that goes with being a leader."

As a result, he says, Arizona and other states must select from "a much narrower field of people who either went into politics because they had the money, or had rather large egos, or because they were angry, rather than because they truly had a calling or an interest in leading."

Second, he says, is the increasingly contentious nature of politics, in which bipartisan debate has been replaced with one side shutting out the other in setting policy. "That is happening everywhere," Melnick says.

In the Symington case, federal prosecutors allege that the Harvard-educated governor made multimillion-dollar deceptions to keep his real estate developments afloat.

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Nora Manella, the US attorney who is handling the case, accused Symington last week of "a complex system of fraud" to conceal his true financial picture.

In some cases, she said, he pleaded with creditors to let up on him, claiming he was broke, while at the same time he bragged to others about being flush with cash as he sought new credit.

The charges range from wire fraud and filing false financial statements to attempted extortion and bankruptcy fraud.

Symington, who is regarded even among fellow Republicans as an intense, combative figure, maintains he is innocent and claims that the federal government has waged a seven-year vendetta against him.

If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 340 years in prison and $14 million in fines. More charges may be pending.

So far, Symington refuses to step down, despite calls for his resignation by a growing chorus that includes the state's largest newspaper, which supported him in the past. A survey last weekend showed 58 percent of Arizonans in this GOP-dominated state want Symington out of office.

Phoenix pollster Earl De Berge said the disenchantment with Symington is the product of an electorate that became enamored of political leaders who came up from the ranks of business.

Throughout his campaign for governor in 1990, Symington pointed to his success as a businessman, saying he would run government the same way, while shielding his financial records from public inspection.

The difference between the politicians of Mr. Goldwater's time, and today, says Mr. De Berge, is that "they have not earned their credentials in terms of being able to understand the ethics of public office and also to hold the values that the public has - and expects - from its elected officials.

"They get trapped in their own belief that if it's OK in business, it's OK in public life," he adds.

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