AZSCAM'S BOMBSHELL

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

The question of Sbrocca's guilt or innocence isn't something that would have concerned Joseph Stedino, however. Stedino is an ex-con who, when he snitched to the FBI on some Reno drug dealers in order to save his own skin, became unable to do business with the crime community. He came to Phoenix from Reno looking for one of the few jobs still left to him: an undercover agent for the police, who were willing for him to infiltrate the Valley's "social gambling" halls in search of dirty betting practices. This employment proved to be fairly lucrative: He received $3,000 a month, a Mustang and a housing allowance. When the social-gambling investigation wore out, Stedino convinced the police that Arizona legislators would take bribes and thus managed to extend his contract. Posing as a flashy Nevada businessman named Tony Vincent, he began offering stacks of cash to state lawmakers who agreed to support with their votes the issue of legalized gambling.

Stedino had quickly seen that he could make a long-term living by ingratiating himself to cops and feds. Some observers believe that upon learning Sbrocca was under investigation, he may have sought out from Foster information about Sbrocca to provide to lawmen who then would owe him a favor. "It was a big game. I think he wanted to pass information along to his other contacts," says Pena Sbrocca, Romano Sbrocca's niece and a lawyer who is collaborating on his defense.

(Stedino's version of this story, recounted in his book, is as follows: He was leery of Foster in the beginning because he felt she'd been sent in to spy on him by Sbrocca, who, with his "mob connections," believed Stedino to be a rival.) Sbrocca himself believes that Stedino first tried to get information from him directly. A businessman in Phoenix for 30 years who had met Stedino when he came to Ernesto's as a customer, Sbrocca found himself invited up to Stedino's offices nearly two months before Foster was. He went, in order to hear Stedino's pitch about legalizing gambling and because he also thought he might sell Stedino some land.

But the visit went badly: Sbrocca saw through Stedino. "I didn't have any idea what he was trying to do, but I knew he wasn't legalizing gambling," Sbrocca says. A single claim of Stedino's didn't make sense to Sbrocca: that Stedino's backers were willing to spend $10 million to $15 million in order to get gambling legalized here, but that these same backers owned no property in the Valley. "I said, 'Tony, do your backers own Scottsdale Road or the Phoenician?'" Sbrocca remembers. "Otherwise, what makes you any different than Joe Blow down the street who already owns a restaurant? How are you specifically going to benefit?'

"If the legislators who took money had asked him that one question, the matter wouldn't have gone any farther," says Sbrocca. When Stedino explained that his backers would buy hotel sites later, Sbrocca claims he saw the con.

(The AzScam transcripts largely bear out Sbrocca's version of events. At a meeting on June 13, 1990, Sbrocca asked Stedino, "Let's say you get this thing legalized, okay. What's the next step, buyin' . . . purchasing a hotel? I mean, how you gonna benefit? . . ." Stedino answered, "I've got land that I've got my eye on already. I'm . . . I'm two months to three months away from putting what you call good-faith money. . . ." Sbrocca hadn't been very chatty before this exchange, but after it occurred, his interest in the gambling issue clearly died.

Stedino's version of this same meeting, taken from his book, has Sbrocca initiating it and "pumping him about his operation." Although it is possible to place almost any interpretation upon any portion of the transcripts, Sbrocca was unmistakably tightlipped during this visit.)

Sbrocca now thinks it's telling that he was ever invited to Stedino's offices during the "sting," which, after all, was designed to induce legislators to take bribes. "I wasn't a legislator!" Sbrocca says. "I think Stedino knew before that meeting that the feds were investigating me. Why else would I get invited to the office, except that he was looking for information?"

And even if Stedino didn't know about the federal investigation then, he knew soon afterward. According to transcripts, Stedino obtained a "50-page report" on Sbrocca from somewhere within his network of law enforcement contacts--contacts that included both Phoenix and Reno FBI and Phoenix police. On June 26, 1990, he read long portions of this report over the telephone to his lobbyist, Ron Tapp, claiming that Sbrocca was a "front man for money laundering, restaurant owner, real estate developer, builder, narcotics user, L.C.N. (La Cosa Nostra) associate, carries weapon at all times." Stedino also read off the names of 58 alleged associates of Sbrocca's, most of them with Italian names, including mob boss Joseph Bonanno.

Perhaps the information he relayed to Tapp even came from Rick Romley or Ruben Ortega themselves. Stedino admits in his book that he was fishing for Sbrocca-related information throughout his relationship with Foster--that after Foster and Sbrocca forced their attentions upon him, he was asked by the "cops" to pump Foster for details about the unsolved murder of Emil Vaci, the maitre d' at Ernesto's who had earlier taken it in the neck. This scenario differs from Foster's only in the details of how it all began and why it continued: According to Stedino, Foster wandered into AzScam of her own accord and then proved incidentally to be useful. According to Stedino, he tried to elicit information about Sbrocca from Foster as part of a legitimate murder investigation and not to further his own greasy career.

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