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Ex-Ariz. Gov. Sentenced to Prison

February 3, 1998

PHOENIX (AP) _ Prosecutors say the 2 1/2-year prison sentence that former Gov. Fife Symington received is ample punishment for a developer convicted of cheating lenders. Kari Esper says otherwise.

``Two-and-a-half years? That’s not even a slap on the hand,″ she said. ``If it had been you or I or another person, we’d be doing a lot more than 30 months.″

Esper was packing boots and hats Monday in a western wear store that was going out of business at the Phoenix Mercado, one of the failed real estate ventures that led to Symington’s fraud conviction.

The Mercado was supposed to help revitalize downtown Phoenix. Today it’s nearly vacant and owned by the union pension funds that loaned Symington money to build it.

All but one of Symington’s projects were sold at a loss or returned to lenders. Symington resigned as governor after his conviction in September on seven counts of providing false financial statements to lenders to win loans and gain concessions for his shaky real estate empire. One count was later dropped.

In his sentencing Monday, U.S. District Judge Roger Strand also ordered Symington to pay a $60,000 fine and serve five years’ probation. He was ordered to report to a minimum-security federal work camp on March 20.

Symington hugged his wife, Ann, and consoled his 14-year-old son, Tommy, who sobbed uncontrollably.

``Could’ve been worse,″ said Symington, whose lawyer promised an appeal.

Prosecutors wanted 10 years for Symington, but insisted that 2 1/2 years is no small accomplishment.

``Mr. Symington’s status as governor has played no role whatsoever ... in this prosecution, and it played no role in our position regarding sentencing,″ said lead prosecutor David Schindler. ``We believe Mr. Symington should be treated like any other defendant.″

But Symington’s status made it easier to say that the government did its job even though the sentence was less than hoped for, added Laurie Levenson, associate dean of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former federal prosecutor.

``A 30-month sentence against a governor in a white-collar crime is not insignificant,″ she said.

Strand said he opted for a lighter sentence because prosecutors seriously overstated how much Symington’s crimes contributed to the lenders’ losses. Strand said a large portion of the losses were caused by the depression in the Phoenix real estate market.

Strand turned over the question of restitution to U.S. Bankruptcy court, where Symington faces trial on charges of giving false financial information to a group of union pension funds to get a $10 million loan.

Symington’s voice broke and his eyes filled with tears as he stood before the judge and acknowledged mistakes _ without admitting he committed any crime. He said he never meant to mislead anyone and should have paid closer attention when preparing his financial statements.

``The legal avalanche that has resulted from my mistakes has been the most brutal experience of my life,″ Symington said. ``It’s sometimes hard to believe that from such stupid mistakes a nightmare was born and flourished.″

Symington, 52, was elected in 1991 on a promise to run the state with the same business acumen he brought to real estate.

He was the second Arizona governor in a decade forced from office by scandal. Fellow Republican Evan Mecham was impeached and removed by the state Senate in 1987, but later was acquitted of charges related to a questionable campaign loan.

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