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Even before Fife Symington was elected governor in 1991, federal investigators were poking through his shaky real-estate empire and tangled personal finances.

Years of subpoenas, grand jury statements and media speculation ended Thursday when Symington was charged in a 23-count indictment with fraud, lying to lenders about his financial worth and trying to use his office to get out of a $10 million loan.The former millionaire developer, elected in 1991 on a promise to run the state with the same acumen he applied to his business, became the second Arizona governor in a decade to face criminal charges.

Symington, 50, defiantly proclaimed innocence.

"After all this time, the people of Arizona are entitled to hear the facts and reach their own judgments," he said. "The days of secrecy and innuendo and endless leaks are over."

The great-grandson of the steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick and cousin of the late Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri, Symington began his own political ascent when another Republican governor got into legal trouble.

In 1988, then-Gov. Evan Mecham was indicted on charges he hid a campaign loan. Symington was among the first to demand hisresignation.

Mecham eventually was impeached for misusing public funds for a loan to his car dealership. He was acquitted of the criminal charges.

Symington was summoned to appear in federal court July 10. His lawyer, John Dowd, said pretrial preparations could be lengthy.

Arizona's Republican leadership quickly closed ranks behind Symington, who has vowed to remain in office through the end of his second term in 1998 and has even talked confidently of a third term.

"Legislators are not juries and they're certainly not prosecutors," said Republican House Speaker Mark Killian. "The governor will have his chance before a jury of his peers and that's the way it ought to be."

The criminal investigation began in 1991 with a referral from the Resolution Trust Corp. after that federal agency's nearly three-year scrutiny of one of Symington's development projects in a civil case.

Nora Manella, U.S. attorney for the central district of California, said Symington lied in the 1980s about his financial worth to "create a picture of himself as a successful real estate developer," costing investors tens of millions of dollars.

He also was accused of lying about his net worth during bankruptcy proceedings, citing debts of nearly $25 million. In 1989, Symington's financial statements listed a net worth of $12 million.

The attempted extortion charge involved a $10 million loan Symington got from a group of union pension funds to build an office and shopping complex in Phoenix.

With the project losing money in 1991, the governor allegedly sought release from the loan by threatening to cause the Mercado complex to lose a key tenant, Arizona State University. He apparently never followed through on the threat: ASU remained a tenant at the Mercado, which was sold at auction in 1993.

With his wife, Ann, at his side, Symington denied wrongdoing as he read a statement calling his indictment the result of malicious politics.

"For as long as I've been in public service, and even longer, I've been investigated by the federal government," he said. "Today, after more than seven years, they are finally making their accusations."