AZSCAM'S BOMBSHELL

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

And he sometimes frightened her on a level more physical than psychological, alluding to his mob contacts and to Smokey and Mikey, his hoodlum "collectors." He came on as such a gangster that when Foster's car was broken into and searched shortly after she and Stedino met, she says she feared he was behind it.

At least, she feared it as much as she feared anything: Primarily, she didn't know what to believe. This was particularly true in relationship to bribes, according to Foster.

The crime of conspiracy, with which Foster was charged, requires intent. Basically, this means that if she didn't understand that Stedino intended to bribe the legislators she sent to him, and that bribery is a crime, she broke no law. The charge against her also referred to her willingness to have Stedino use her name on checks as a way of laundering illegal campaign contributions. When he telephoned to ask whether he could, did she know that was a crime?

Sorting out from the transcripts what Foster did and didn't know would challenge Bill Moyers.

The confusion was largely of Stedino's making. In the beginning, the descriptions of bribery that he laid on Foster were so oblique and contradictory that they could have meant anything. "I'm in a position to . . . ask these people for their help and ask them what I can do for them," he said, within six days of the time he and Foster met, of his intentions with legislators. As he cajoled Foster to send her contacts his way, he referred to "dropping a package" on them and confided his fear that his office might be bugged. He said that his backers had given him $8 million to spend. But he also told her: "We don't slide through loopholes. . . . We do the right thing. It's that simple. And I wouldn't have any problem at all in, uh, sitting with your people. I wouldn't embarrass you." His messages were incredibly mixed.

Foster says that to make matters worse, she wasn't really paying attention--that Stedino laid it on too thick to be taken literally. From the moment they'd met, he'd bragged lavishly of his prosperity and importance, claiming to be ready to settle 15 mill on his wife should they divorce, claiming to have been personal friends with Hubert Humphrey, to have made the Las Vegas Sands a success, to have dropped $25,000 into Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign. Foster says that her ears were numb.

"He had said so many things to me!" she says. "So, number one, I didn't believe him. And number two, I didn't care what he was doing. I was there to schmooze, get memberships, and better myself in my job."
As for money laundering, Foster says she wasn't familiar enough with campaign finance laws to understand that Stedino was setting her up; she says it despite having worked as a professional fund raiser for congressional candidate John Conlan. Surprisingly, the transcripts bear out this part of her story. When Stedino asked for permission to borrow her name, she seems to have understood only that precautions were in order--not that her "friend" was inevitably about to perform a criminal act. "Honey, anything you want, as long as you make me legal, I don't wanna get thrown in the slammer," she told Stedino.

When they'd known each other seven weeks--and after she had sent Higuera, Barnes and West his way--Stedino finally laid it out for her. "He wants some money, he wants 20,000," he told Foster of one legislator. "You think they come cheap? I'm out over half a million here. . . . One guy cost me 55." Next he explained his methods for disbursing funds to Higuera, and the tendency of legislators to also want something on the "back end"--that is, a job or a lock on a casino concession. It is very difficult to believe that Foster didn't understand even then, as she claims.

However, there are indicators of lingering ignorance even in the final transcript. The record of the last day that Foster spoke with her confidant is a record of a government operation going off like a grenade in a minor citizen's life.

Foster was telephoned on January 31, 1991, by Randy Collier, a Republic reporter. Two days later, Collier and reporter Chuck Kelly would spread the first news of AzScam all over the Republic's front page.

Before she agreed to an interview with Collier, Foster telephoned Stedino. Should she speak to Collier? she wanted to know. For the first time, she received no advice from her own personal Master of the Universe. Stedino refused to tell her what to do.

"My best interest is your best interest. I'm asking you to protect you," she urged him. ". . . I'm not worried about myself. The whole reason I called you is because I wanted you to know, number one. Number two, I want you to tell me how to respond to help you. Do you understand?"
He understood far more than she knew; he finally began to tell her in crystal-clear language what he understood. For the first time, he spoke of "bribes" and "crimes," telling Foster that all along he'd been breaking the law. He reminded her that she'd sent legislators to him, that several times he'd used her name to launder campaign contributions. "Well, there's nothin' wrong with that . . . is there?" asked Foster about the money laundering. Her responses to most of Stedino's revelations that day were just this startled and confused, although her education was swift. When the conversation began, she was concerned for herself only, inasmuch as she didn't like the idea of being quoted in the paper; when it ended, she was beginning to understand, although vaguely, that she'd been playing with fire. But even so, she rushed to reassure Stedino. "I'm real sorry he came after ya," said Stedino of the Republic's Collier.

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