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Tearful Symington stepping down after conviction

Fife Symington's lip trembled and his voice cracked. After years of vowing to beat whatever federal prosecutors threw at him, he had lost, he was to be ousted as governor and he was almost certainly going to prison.

"Every once in a great while, there is salvation in surrender," a tearful Symington said as he announced his resignation, which will take effect Friday. "I have never been one to linger, and I don't intend to start now."The two-term Republican was convicted Wednesday of lying to get millions in loans to shore up his collapsing real estate empire in the 1980s, becoming the second Arizona governor in a decade to be forced from office by scandal.

State law would have forced Symington from office anyway once his felony conviction becomes official at his Nov. 10 sentencing. He faces up to 165 years in prison and $6.25 million in fines, but federal sources told the Associated Press the term will likely be in the five- to 15-year range.

His resignation sets the stage for him to be replaced by the secretary of state, Republican Jane Hull. She will be sworn in Monday.

"I leave this office knowing that I have done my best," Symington said after a jury ended his 16 1/2-week trial by finding him guilty of seven counts of bank fraud.

Indicted in 1996 after a six-year investigation, Symington was convicted of lying about his wealth on financial statements he gave to lenders from 1986 to 1991 to get nearly $200 million in loans for his struggling development business.

Symington, 52, was acquitted of two counts of fraud and one of attempted extortion, and the jury could not agree on 11 other fraud and perjury charges. The judge declared a mistrial on the deadlocked counts, but prosecutors wouldn't rule out retrying Symington on those charges.

Defense attorney John Dowd said he would appeal the guilty verdicts and seek to fend off a second trial: "We're going to keep fighting, mainly because this case is without merit."

The verdict came after 17 days of deliberations. The jury had to start over after seven days when a juror was replaced. Other jurors complained she was unable to concentrate and refused to discuss her opinions on the case.

Prosecutors contended Symington was nothing more than a swindler, taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in developer fees while creating office buildings and shopping centers that never turned a profit. They said he misled lenders about his empire to create the illusion he was a successful developer.

In seven days on the stand, Symington insisted the errors were honest mistakes that were missed by his accountants.

But Symington was convicted of misleading a Japanese bank that loaned nearly $130 million to finance his former crown jewel, the Camelback Esplanade office-hotel complex. As his empire crumbled, Symington falsely told Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank his net worth had not fallen below $4 million.

He also was found guilty of submitting false financial statements to Valley National Bank to get concessions and extensions on personal loans, and of giving three fraudulent financial statements to a group of union pension funds which loaned him $10 million to finance the Phoenix Mercado, a downtown office-retail project that is now defunct.

When his sorry financial state became public knowledge well into his first term, Symington argued he was a good businessman caught up in Arizona's collapsing real estate market.

Yet in 1994, Symington and other former directors of the failed Southwest Savings and Loan Association agreed to a $12 million settlement of a $200 million lawsuit filed by government regulators after the thrift's collapse.

A criminal investigation of the S&L's failure delved into Symington's other business dealings.

These included financial statements prepared for lenders in 1989 and 1991 showing a $35 million shift in his net worth, from a high of $12 million to a low of negative $23 million.

Symington faces still more legal troubles.

The pension funds that loaned him money for the Phoenix Mercado won a $12 million judgment against Symington, who declared bankruptcy in 1995 after the funds refused to release him from his personal guarantee of the loan.

The funds are challenging Symington's attempt to discharge the debt, claiming fraud. A trial date is expected to be set later this month.

As the public learned of the verdict, some recalled another Republican governor, Evan Meacham, who was impeached and removed from office in 1987. He was later acquitted of charges related to a campaign loan.

"What we need is an honest governor in this state. Enough is enough," said Fred Ortiz of Tucson, who watched TV coverage of Symington in an electronics store. "There's too much corruption."