AZSCAM'S BOMBSHELL

SHIREE FOSTER WAS TREATED LIKE A BLONDE JOKE UNTIL SHE MET JOE STEDINO. THEN IT GOT WORSE.

@body:On the day in 1991 when the defendants of AzScam were arraigned, one small, pretty young woman was among them, looking as groomed as a Fifties airline stewardess. She wore a smart, belted black dress, calf-length, and high heels; her thick, blond hair was pulled into a long ponytail and held with a black bow. Seated in the daunted crowd of high-profile legislators who'd been caught in the act of taking bribes, she sat quietly beside her stepfather, a man with graying temples, until her name was called. The older man swept her away and out of the limelight as soon as she had taken her turn before the judge, in front of whom her voice had quavered.

Her appearance and performance couldn't have been more understated. The same cannot be said about anything the Arizona public has learned in the meantime about Shiree Foster, the least-indicted of all the AzScam defendants.

Kept under wraps by her lawyer, she has made no defense against the sexpot persona advanced by the local press and by What's In It for Me?, the insider's book on AzScam written by undercover police agent Joseph Stedino and co-author Dary Matera. In Stedino's book, Foster was called a "little moll" and "John Dillinger's lady in red"; the gangland references play off her connection to Romano Sbrocca, a Phoenix businessman and former boyfriend of Foster's who has been linked by law enforcement to the Mafia and who is currently fighting a federal indictment for money laundering. (Sbrocca firmly denies mob connections and all criminal wrongdoing, and is suing the law enforcement agencies that accuse him as well as the Phoenix Gazette, which has printed the charges.) Foster was painted as a miniskirted tease with lipstick on her teeth, who came on to Stedino as though searching for a sugar daddy, and who asked him for money as casually as she crossed her legs.

She has been portrayed as the toy of the Phoenix lawmen who watched her from the next room through a video camera as she sat in Stedino's office. According to Stedino's book, these officers telephoned their agent incessantly, demanding, "Get her back on the couch where we can see her legs!"

"Move her closer to the camera!" "Get her to take her top off!"
And although it is difficult to believe Stedino about anything--he is a thrice-convicted felon and ex-con who began performing undercover police work because it was easy money--perhaps he was telling the truth about the wolf whistles: The AzScam transcripts contain multiple instances where, immediately following a telephone call, Stedino asks Foster to change her position, either because he wants her to stop flitting around or because the chair he's using hurts his back.

Now, at last, after two years, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office has dropped the single charge of conspiracy it had filed against Foster, and she is able to tell her own story. It is not as smooth as Stedino's, and it doesn't end with her indictment. It is not a story about political jockeying so much as the portrait of a pawn drawn into a legitimate criminal investigation. It is about law enforcement turning into personal betrayal, in that Foster pursued a relationship with Stedino not primarily for money, but because she regarded him as her friend and protector. "I thought the man was my confidant," says Foster. "I was fighting men at work off daily, and here was this guy who said he truly cared and he didn't make a pass! I thought he was like my dad! Talk about dumb blonde!"

Because it is a personal story, Shiree Foster's is perhaps the most complex of the tales that surface from the more than 20,000 pages of official AzScam transcripts. Its pivotal character isn't a one-dimensional mob boss's plaything, but a confused, emotional woman from an archconservative Scottsdale family who is torn between her upbringing and her desire for excitement. She is a woman who talks with tough savvy one moment and great innocence the next, and convinces you of both. It's a story about picking up the pieces, but perhaps not learning from mistakes, because as Foster has struggled to pull herself out of limbo, she has structured a new life that has much in common with the old one.

It's about what happens to someone with no criminal history as soon as an indictment is delivered to the door. Immediately after news of AzScam broke in the press, Foster was fired from her job as a receptionist and saleswoman at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce--the job that had placed her in the thick of lobbyists and legislators who streamed into the building and thus made her valuable to Stedino, who was fishing for introductions. "I had kind of built my life around the chamber and all the little contacts," she says. "Everything I had accomplished and felt important for had gone away. But the chamber was a political group. I understand I was a hot potato." (Foster's supervisor at the chamber, Wayne Anderson, will not comment upon the reasons for her firing.) She has had difficulty finding other work. "I introduced her to five or six people who could be looking for someone, and they really didn't want to take a chance on someone who had been in the public eye," says Richard Emerine, a businessman and friend. "A guy with a PR firm said to me, 'How would I ever explain it to my wife and clients?'" It is only recently that Foster has gone to work for the new man in her life, Saab dealer Armand Verdone. She has felt deserted by her friends, most of whom she claims have distanced themselves. Her closest girlfriend never even telephoned following Foster's indictment and has since left the state without a word. Foster speaks wistfully of Pat Murphy, the former publisher of the Arizona Republic whom she met through the chamber, whom she once regarded as a lunch-date friend and who dropped from sight once she was charged, she says. (Contacted about their friendship, Murphy at first denies ever lunching with Foster, then calls back to say he remembers a single lunch that took place "long before the indictment.") "I had a very full life socially; it never really stopped," she says of her life two years ago. "When AzScam hit, it was like hitting a blank wall. I have had very superficial friends." She has lived in daily fear of the Arizona Republic, which typically has run word of new developments in her case before she has heard of them herself. Once a chirpy patriot--I have an innate, burning desire to do something for my country" is the sort of thing she says--she is now terrified of the government that has pursued her, to the point that in the beginning, she even distrusted her court-appointed attorney, Dennis Jones. "I thought, the state appointed him and they are just going to put me away," she says.

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