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For the week of Mar. 22 through Mar. 28, 2000

McCain’s protégé alleged to be involved in scandalous web

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

It’s just as well John McCain’s long reach for the presidential brass ring trail faltered.

Had he beaten George W., news reporters hungry for fresh angles might’ve returned to Phoenix and taken a fresh look at McCain’s political protégé, J. Fife Symington III, a rising star in the Republican galaxy who was destroyed by scandal.

Symington, 55, was Arizona’s two-term governor until forced to resign in 1997 after being convicted on multiple federal fraud charges involving a real estate empire built on phony claims of wealth and millions of dollars in loans secured with empty promises to lenders. The conviction was reversed because the trial judge bounced an incoherent juror, and is being appealed.

Now Symington is in bankruptcy court, where a union pension fund hopes to recover $10 million lost on Symington real estate projects.

Symington and McCain are more than two peas in the Republican pod. Symington’s lawyer in his criminal trial was Washington attorney John Dowd, also McCain’s lawyer in Senate ethics committee hearings that found McCain guilty of "poor judgment" in dealings with master swindler Charles Keating.

Symington’s chief of staff in the Arizona governor’s office was Wes Gullett, now one of McCain’s closest political advisers. In fact, as McCain confirmed for The Arizona Republic, he and Gullett gamble together in Las Vegas. Gullet’s wife, Deb, also is a McCain adviser and aide in his Arizona office.

Symington and McCain are on their second marriages, each to young millionairesses (Cindy McCain’s fortune stems from a beer distributorship; Ann Symington’s from the Olin industrial fortune).

During Symington’s federal criminal trial, Cindy McCain was a regular front row spectator with Symington’s family. McCain, it has been widely reported, was so dedicated to Symington’s future that he offered to buy Symington’s 1994 GOP primary opponent, Barbara Barrett, out of the gubernatorial race with cash. But Barrett, a highly regarded senior appointee in the Reagan and Bush administrations, a lawyer with international clients and wife of the CEO of chipmaker Intel, refused, angering McCain.

McCain abandoned another friendship over Symington: he ostracized his onetime congressional aide, Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, after Woods began a criminal investigation of Symington.

Symington turned out to be a master liar.

The great-grandson of Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick and son of Pan American World Airways executive John Fife Symington Jr., Symington convinced voters in 1990 and 1994 he was a millionaire real estate tycoon. But, after his 1994 election, he announced he was $35 million in debt, with only $61,000 in assets—despite being married to a millionairess and having income from a family trust. After pleading poverty, Symington left with his wife on a luxury European vacation.

And why didn’t bankers who knew of Symington’s true financial fix blow the whistle? Allegations circulated in political circles that the banks wanted more state business and avoided offending Gov. Symington.

Finally, this irony: McCain’s friend, Symington, is being questioned about whether he has any hidden assets by Phoenix lawyer Michael Manning, who won hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments against savings and loan swindler Charlie Keating, McCain’s one-time friend and benefactor.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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