A federal grand jury in Phoenix indicted Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III (R) yesterday on 23 charges, saying he abused his office in an extortion attempt and lied repeatedly about his faltering real estate holdings when applying for loans.
Symington, 50, in his second term as governor, said he would not resign the office he has held since 1991.
"For as long as I've been in public service, and even longer, I've been investigated by the federal government," Symington said at an afternoon news conference. "Today, after more than seven years, they are finally making their accusations."
The indictment "will finally bring to light all the facts," he added. "If there's anything good in this event, that is it. After all this time, the people of Arizona are entitled to hear the facts and reach their own judgments."
Democrats promptly called on the Republican-controlled legislature to begin impeachment proceedings against Symington, following the example of legislators who impeached Gov. Evan Mecham (R) in 1988 after his indictment for concealing a campaign loan. At the time, Symington was among the first to call for Mecham's resignation.
Symington, who grew up in Maryland's hunt country, was a real estate developer who ran for office saying he would apply his business acumen to the management of state government.
Nora M. Manella, U.S. attorney from the central district of California, told reporters yesterday that Symington lied about his financial health as he sought loans to keep his real estate projects afloat.
"Most of Mr. Symington's real estate projects were unsuccessful," the Associated Press quoted Manella as saying. "But through the false statements, he was able to create a picture of himself as a successful real estate developer."
The indictment consists of 16 counts of making false statements, four counts of wire fraud and one count each of attempted extortion, bankruptcy fraud and attempted fraud.
On the count of attempted extortion, the indictment alleges that Symington, while governor, threatened to have Arizona State University break its lease in one of his troubled projects if a union pension fund that had lent $10 million to the project did not release Symington from his personal guarantee on the loan.
Symington acted "through the wrongful use of fear and under color of official right," the indictment said.
Sam Coppersmith, a Phoenix lawyer who chairs the state Democratic Party, called for Symington's resignation. "Here you have an example of a governor who doesn't want to follow the rules he set down for everybody else," he said.
"If he doesn't have the grace to resign, legislators should act. I suspect they will not. I don't think they don't have the stomach for it."
Chuck Blanchard, a former state senator and Democratic Party activist, said the indictment, anticipated for months, was nevertheless "a shock. It's not good for the state -- it doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or a Republican."
Federal officials have been investigating Symington's business dealings for several years and there was a parallel inquiry into the failure of a savings and loan association whose directors included Symington.
Last fall, Symington filed for personal bankruptcy, listing debts of about $25 million and assets of $62,000.
Three months ago, federal investigators won indictments of Symington's former deputy chief of staff and his accountant, since dead, on charges of allegedly rigging the selection process for a state consulting contract. CAPTION: Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III reads from statement responding to 23-count indictment by federal grand jury.