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Arizona Trial Roils a Desert Camelot

At the time, Fife Symington was as much a symbol of Arizona as saguaros and Scottsdale golf courses. While developer after developer went bankrupt during the great real-estate crash of the 1980s, Mr. Symington not only survived. He thrived.

At the crest of his commercial prowess and popularity in 1988, the business magnate walked into a Phoenix luncheon and introduced himself with a line that embodied the swagger of pro-development Arizona: "I'm Fife Symington, and I love height and density."

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Today, nearly a decade later, the desert Camelot that Symington so meticulously constructed is in danger of crumbling.

Now in his second term as governor, the millionaire Republican is the subject of a criminal trial that focuses on how he managed to survive a real-estate debacle that consumed so many others.

To a certain extent, the trial represents a fight for Arizona's political soul. But it will also shape the future of a Harvard-educated entrepreneur who, after capturing the governorship in a 1991 run-off - on his first try for public office - was viewed as the kind of business-savvy, can-do politician who could emerge nationally.

He's on trial not just for his political life, but to restore his tarnished ethical reputation, says Phoenix pollster Earl de Berge.

In all, Symington is accused of 22 counts of criminal fraud, perjury, and attempted extortion, stemming from his business dealings. Should he be convicted of any one, he would automatically be removed from office under state law.

Arizona's turbulent past

The political turbulence surrounding Symington is nothing the state hasn't seen before, of course. In the past decade, former Gov. Evan Mecham (R) was impeached, and several legislators, caught in a political-corruption sting operation, were jailed.

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But if Symington is acquitted of all counts and keeps his office legally, the Arizona Legislature "would not have the will or the desire" to impeach Symington on its own - the way it did Mr. Mecham in 1988, says Rob Melnick of Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

Such an experience, Mr. Melnick says, would cast a black cloud over the entire system of government in Arizona. Besides, he adds, "How many governors can you impeach before it becomes a joke?"

Symington's stand

Symington, however, is taking the allegations very seriously and vigorously denies any wrongdoing. He says any mistakes made on financial documents that are to be used as evidence in the trial were unintentional, and that there was no attempt to deceive. He also charges prosecutors with waging a seven-year vendetta against him, examining nearly every aspect of his financial affairs.

Prosecutors counter that as the Phoenix real estate market was crumbling around him, Symington alternately exaggerated or understated his business's financial health to suit his purposes: He overstated his firm's worth to gain credit from new lenders, and he pleaded financial hardship to gain leniency from existing borrowers, they say.

Regardless of the trial's outcome, though, many say that the Maryland-bred great-grandson of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick will have a tough time winning back voters.

The public perception is that Symington has crossed over a line of unethical conduct, Mr. de Berge says, and that is borne out by recent polling, which indicates only 21 percent like the Arizona governor, while 46 percent do not.

For Symington to regain public support, de Berge adds, he must not only win his court case convincingly, but also show the public he did nothing wrong ethically. And de Berge says that may be a tough task.

If any questions remain at the end of the trial, "the people who don't trust him still won't trust him. It will be very hard to bring them back."

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