AZSCAM'S BOMBSHELL

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

And in a final, ironic twist, her life has been pulled out by the roots for reasons that, in the end, weren't terribly important even to her accusers. Asked why the County Attorney's Office has stopped pursuing Foster, spokesman Bill FitzGerald says, "My perception is that basically she was a small, incidental part of the case." (He refuses further comment until all the AzScam defendants are disposed of.) More than a year ago, Foster was offered a plea bargain that would have resulted in the eventual dismissal of the conspiracy charge, but she adamantly believed she was blameless and refused the deal, willing to go to trial. Now the County Attorney's Office has dropped the charge, anyway. You have to wonder why the prosecutors put her through two years of hell.

Attorney Dennis Jones opines that at the beginning of a major case, prosecutors tend to indict everyone in sight, and that it was probably only with time and investigation that the County Attorney's Office took a close look at Foster. "Until the case was prosecuted, I don't think they got an understanding that she didn't realize what was going on," he says. Well, perhaps Shiree Foster wasn't "serious" within the big picture of AzScam. But AzScam has been serious business for her.

@rule:
@body:She was caught up in it innocently, but not by accident. It is impossible to take a magnifying glass to her role without scrutinizing also the men who busted her--the members of the Phoenix Police Department and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, led by former police chief Ruben Ortega and County Attorney Rick Romley, respectively. Much has already been said and written about the suspicion that they designed the sting to ensnare certain citizens and to exclude others. Throughout the two years since the "sting" came to light, Ortega in particular has been shown to possess a history of vengeance against detractors that surfaced pointedly during AzScam; a careful perusal of the transcripts revealed that Stedino repeatedly tried to lure into the sting Pat Cantelme, the president of the Phoenix firefighters union and one of Ortega's most outspoken critics. The transcripts and subsequent police testimony have also revealed that, working under police orders, Stedino attempted to "get" something illegal on Michael Lacey, the executive editor of New Times, who has written blisteringly about both Ortega and Romley through the years.

Shiree Foster and those around her believe that she, too, was drawn into the sting for reasons that had only to do with the ambitions of AzScam's founders, including Stedino: They think she was pursued because of her relationship with Sbrocca. But if Foster's supporters are right, there is a big difference between her situation and Cantelme's.

The firefighter, an innocent man, was targeted for political reasons. Foster, on the other hand, may have been seen by AzScam's organizers as a legitimate conduit to Sbrocca, a man local law enforcement had already tagged with a "mob" label.

Shiree Foster's life blew apart because she fell in love with the wrong man. The saga really started long before Stedino came to town--years before--when Foster first met Sbrocca, a charming local businessman and the owner of the restaurant known as Ernesto's Backstreet, outside of which his Rolls-Royce was parked with such seeming permanence that for years the car itself was a Phoenix landmark. Other, less elegant items were also part of Ernesto's atmosphere, among them rumors of mob connections and drug dealing and, in 1986, the much-publicized murder of a maitre d', who was found slain gangland-style in a canal near the restaurant. Shortly after AzScam broke, Romano Sbrocca and his son Angelo, who'd been under investigation by the feds since 1988, were charged with money laundering and other crimes. Angelo was later convicted of drug possession, but Romano has yet to go to trial.

When Foster met the much-older Sbrocca, she may not have seemed on the surface a very likely candidate for romance with a married entrepreneur whose background was rumored to be colorful. She was a woman from a highly religious Scottsdale family whose members attended Bible-study classes every week; she is remembered by high school friends as a "goody two shoes." She didn't drink, smoke, do drugs or swear. Her politics were so regressive that she had no use for the women's movement and still doesn't. (I want to be a woman. I do not want to open my own doors," she says.) She always expected to settle into a sensible married life out of school and had laid all the groundwork for it, becoming engaged at age 20 to Bob Plummer, the son of her high school science teacher, who describes himself today as "not a very exciting person." During Foster's time with Plummer--they were together for three years before breaking up--they spent time with their families and basked in their "high moral values," according to Plummer. When Plummer saw Foster again after many years apart, following her indictment for AzScam, he was greatly surprised to discover that she had become a woman with some career ambitions. It just hadn't seemed in the cards.

None of this is to suggest, however, that Foster's young adulthood was spent fading into the background. Her looks are much classier than Stedino gave her credit for; they are the startling sort that thrust a girl inevitably forward. She was a pompom girl at Coronado High, a cheerleader at Scottsdale Community College, and in the years immediately before AzScam, a regular at Hops! Bistro and Brewery and Houstons who could barely be glimpsed through the wall of eager swains surrounding her. "I would sit there by myself and she would have 18 or 20 guys swarming around her," says her friend Page Vosburgh, who often went along. "One night some guy sent down a bottle of $300 champagne. I said, 'This is it! I don't have to work a day in my life if I'm with Shiree.' I was dumbfounded."

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