Mark Kimble COLUMN
Symington sentencing scene a mix of stakeout and rugby
Citizen Associate Editor
Editor’s note: Mark Kimble is on vacation. While he is gone, we are publishing some of his past columns that readers have said they would like to read again. This column first was published on Feb. 5, 1998. Kimble’s new columns resume next Thursday.
PHOENIX – There are times when it is embarrassing to be in this profession.
Monday was one of those times.
In case you’ve just emerged from hibernation, Monday was the day when Fife Symington was sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison for his role in submitting false statements to banks while he was a commercial property developer.
This was obviously very big news. And we in the media responded appropriately – with the kind of mob mentality that has become a Hollywood cliché in any movie depicting the press.
It would be tempting to describe it as a circus. But that would be a disservice to the fine people and animals that find honest employment in circuses. It was more of a journalistic riot.
All the electronic media people were there with their trucks, microwave towers and assorted accouterments. A Phoenix radio station that proclaims itself “The Sports Station” was there, broadcasting the events from a card table set up across the street. This was the sporting event of the day.
I’m thankful that journalists weren’t the only ones making fools of themselves. A dozen or so people wearing T-shirts proclaiming their membership in the American Indian Movement stood on the courthouse lawn, banging a huge drum and yelling, “Justice for the state of Arizona! Justice for the Indian people! Justice for white America!”
For some reason, the chanting tapered off when the cameras focused elsewhere. One guy in a “Free Peltier” shirt went back to attacking his Big Mac.
Throughout his criminal trial, because of his position as governor and the resulting security concerns, Symington would be driven into a garage under the federal courthouse, allowing him to come and go largely unseen. But when he was convicted and removed from office, he lost that perk.
So when he was sentenced Monday, it was clear that Symington would have to walk in the front door of the courthouse. The only mystery was from which direction he and the other principals would come.
Most of the camera jockeys knew what Symington looked like. But the other trial participants were largely unknown. So, just to be safe, whenever a man in a suit ventured onto the sidewalk in front of the courthouse, he was set upon by a mob eager to record every furtive gesture.
Most of these horrified people were simply walking by, and the journalists’ interest vanished when they didn’t turn and enter the courthouse. But whenever someone actually went inside after being successfully photographed, the chatter among the cameramen intensified.
“Who was that?” “I don’t know, but I think I’ve seen him before.” “Well, I got some good shots of him.”
Doug Cole, who was Symington’s spokesman in the governor’s office, walked around the corner and was immediately surrounded. When he said, “Hi, guys,” the video cameras whirred, the motor drives fired and the moment was forever captured.
The Symington watch was soon perfected. There were two possible corners. Sentries were dispatched to each, with instructions to yell to their colleagues when the prey was spotted. Most reporters remained in the center, ready to dash either direction.
“There he is,” the cry came from the north corner. The mob rushed north in time to film a semi-truck passing by. It seemed unlikely the former governor would arrive like that.
The No. 19 bus went by as cameramen filmed it just to make sure Symington wasn’t aboard. A man pushing an orange street-cleaning cart came around the corner, saw the commotion, promptly turned around and left.
There were a few more false alarms. Then, suddenly, he was spotted! Symington, holding his wife’s hand and trailed by several of his children, had barely emerged from a parking garage across the street when he was encircled by the journalistic mob.
It could be compared to a rugby scrum with mindless pushing and shoving and hair pulling. And the ball in the middle was Symington, looking very small and vulnerable and unprotected without the bodyguards he had as governor.
A backpedaling cameraman tripped over the curb and went sprawling, his expensive video camera clattering to the sidewalk. The scrum moved on.
Upstairs, in the third-floor courtroom where the sentencing was to take place, the shoving had been going on for several hours. The 100 or so seats had been taken for 90 minutes when Symington arrived.
Latecomers were shunted to an empty downstairs courtroom, where they had the privilege of hearing the proceedings broadcast over a scratchy speaker. U.S. marshals, intent on enforcing the federal ban on cameras in the courtroom, ensured that no photos were taken of the empty room or of the scratchy speaker.
The overflow room quickly filled to overflowing. With people sitting in all the spectators’ seats, at the two lawyers’ tables and in the jury box, several journalists dragged in a bench from the hall. Others sprawled on the floor.
Precisely on time, the session started upstairs. But the scratchy speaker didn’t work. It cut in and out, with the volume barely above whisper level. People crowded closer, straining to hear as if these were the first words broadcast from space aliens.
The problems were rectified, and 45 minutes later it was over. There were some sniffles from former Symington administration officials as they filed out past the waiting journalistic pack.
After another half-hour or so, Symington emerged and talked in front of more than 15 microphones for a few minutes. He was clearly uncomfortable, fidgeting with his left hand – first in his jacket pocket, then in his pants pocket. His wife clasped his right arm tightly.
When the Native Americans and other bystanders starting yelling obscenities at Symington, his attorney placed his hand on the former governor’s left shoulder and urged him to leave.
The scrum encircled him again, down the sidewalk, around the corner and across the street as his former aides tried to protect Symington. There was a loud crash as a television truck following sideswiped a light pole, but the group continued, not slowing.
As Symington approached the safety of the garage, an elderly man pressed his way up to the former governor.
“Good luck,” the man said offering his hand to Symington.
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Symington replied, shaking the man’s hand.
Back at the courthouse, the reporters and their cameras lingered, lights still on. They were sorry to see it all end. It had been so much fun.
And the news was reported.
Mark Kimble’s column appears on Thursdays. He also appears at 6:30 and midnight Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Phone: 573-4662; fax: 573-4569; e-mail: email@example.com