@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.
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.
@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."
At the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, she became a one-woman networking service who seemed well-acquainted with most of the executives in the Valley. "If you went to a chamber golf tournament and were standing next to her, she would introduce you to every CEO," says a local banker. "They just would flock to her."
And she was never embarrassed by this level of attention. On the contrary, she has needed attention: It is one of the primary qualities that her friends describe. "As terrible as AzScam has been, I think that at some gut level, the attention really turns her on," says an old high school friend. "She cannot be loved enough."
There was always more to Foster, however, than the wholesome, gorgeous exterior. In particular, she says, there was a preoccupation that out of her need for her conservative parents' approval, she kept under wraps throughout her years at home: She is a thrill seeker. "I have to have excitement in my life," she says. "I do not want to be with boring people. I would rather be out with some lunatic!" As soon as she'd completed a couple of years at SCC, her cravings drew her toward scenes of power. First she got into politics, as a campaign worker for conservative John Conlan during his ill-fated 1986 primary race for the U.S. House of Representatives against John Kyl (He stood for everything I thought was right and good for America"). She was attracted to her job at the chamber because it allowed her to hobnob with "cream of the crop" business people as well as legislators and lobbyists. She made only $16,000 a year, but she speaks of it as a glamorous career, in part because recruiting new members was a portion of her job. Some onlookers say that her need for excitement extends to her private life, that post-Plummer she has chosen companions who seem out of synch with her sheltered upbringing and naive manner. "I think there is a certain attraction to high rollers for Shiree," says attorney Jones, who feels he has come to know her well during the past two years. "And I think that before AzScam happened, she had a tendency to get involved without much thought."
Says friend Vosburgh: "Shiree should be with someone like Tom Cruise, the nice guy next door, but that would bore her to tears. She wants someone who is going to wine and dine her and smoke and cuss and drink. Even though she doesn't do those things, I think she lives her life through someone that does."
Vosburgh believes that Foster's preferences have led her into relationships with men she perceived to be slightly dangerous. "That whole involvement with drugs, money, danger: She thrived on it. She literally wanted to be in the middle of all that action," Vosburgh says. "We would be out with Romano, and she would go, 'Look, I think Romano is packin' a heater.' I would say, 'What's a heater?' She knew every term. I think she may have seen too many Mafia movies. I will still pick up Vanity Fair and read about the Mafia and I will think Shiree is talking to me."
And yet Foster maintained a surprising innocence about some details, and Vosburgh believes the innocence, although inconsistent, is genuine. "I don't think it ever crossed her mind that Romano might be dealing drugs or his son might be," Vosburgh says. "I don't think she would even know what money laundering is."
Whatever the attraction, Foster became involved with Sbrocca, and observers believe it has done more than break her heart: that it is the reason Joseph Stedino drew her into AzScam.
That Stedino went hunting for her is clear from the transcripts: During their first meeting, in August of 1990, he scolded her for unresponsiveness, saying that he had been trying to reach her for a month at the chamber without success. He had called three fruitless times; it wasn't until she was also telephoned and encouraged to be in touch with Stedino by Paul Haita, a hanger-on of Sbrocca's who had also attached himself to Stedino in the early days of the "sting," that she traipsed over to Stedino's office in the Camelback corridor to sell him the chamber membership he claimed to want.
(In What's In It for Me?, Stedino doesn't admit to luring Foster to his office with repeated telephone calls, as he does in the transcripts. Instead, he says that liaison Haita fairly forced the meeting on him. Stedino has now disappeared, and Haita wouldn't speak to New Times.)
Several people close to Foster, including Sbrocca, believe that Stedino pursued her in order to gain further information about Sbrocca, whom he knew to be under federal investigation. Sbrocca acknowledges that because of his Italian heritage, rumors connecting him to the mob have been circulating in Phoenix for "30 years," but that in 88, the FBI began in earnest to concentrate upon him. He also says that he's squeaky clean: "I have no criminal record. I have nothing to really hide." He adds that he plans to recover through civil suits all that law enforcement agencies have taken from him with their accusations, which he says have totally ruined his business. "I am not scared of these people," he says.
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.
In connection with this same report, Stedino also told Tapp, "I know Romano's girlfriend's name. . . . It's Sheryl. . . . She works for the Chamber of Commerce. . . . Frequent guest [at Ernesto's] and doesn't pay her check. . . . And she is a blonde."
Five weeks and two days later, Shiree Foster was in Joseph Stedino's office, and he was complaining that he'd been trying to reach her for a month.
That first visit, during which Stedino paid Foster $200 for his chamber membership, lasted more than two hours and was an emotional one. Perhaps the intensity was inevitable: Even under better circumstances, Foster experiences mood swings. "She goes from 'I am going to kill myself' to 'This is the greatest day in my life' in just one day," says a friend who asked not to be named. But even so, this was a very bad day indeed, in that Foster was brokenhearted. Only a few weeks before, Sbrocca had dumped her.
She blurted this fact to Stedino, a stranger, almost as soon as he began sharing a confidence of his own: He represented himself as a married man who had finally cut loose his long-term mistress because their relationship held no future for her. Was the similarity between his story and Foster's, on a day when she was supremely vulnerable, only a coincidence?
She had no reason not to think so. She told Stedino, "It seems like . . . I've experienced some of the same things you're tellin' me about." She told Stedino about her relationship with a married Italian who had recently quit telephoning her, citing business pressure. "Sometimes I wonder, 'Have you been taken for a ride?'" she went on. "I don't demand anything, all I demanded was some attention and, and some time, not even that much. I was very understanding. . . . I've come through kind of a crummy time and I thought maybe, well, maybe you would understand. . . . I don't know why men do it to me. . . . I say, 'Okay, God, what are you trying to show me through rejection and disappointment, hard times, being through some real extreme situations with my job, finances, family, relationships? What are you trying to tell me?' . . . Sometimes I feel like I could just die."
As she poured out her heart, Stedino asked her, "Is there a chance I know this fella?" And again: "No chance I know this guy?" The transcripts aren't clear about the moment when Foster and Stedino agreed they were discussing Sbrocca, but from that point on, Stedino couldn't badmouth him enough. He told Foster that Sbrocca had insulted him, that Sbrocca was a poor businessman, that Sbrocca hadn't deserved Foster's love. As though waiting for confirmation, he said, "He's, uh, halfway connected, you know, with wise guys and shit, okay?" And later: "I think that this man right now is feelin' some very serious financial pressure."
Throughout their next meetings and telephone calls, Stedino never missed an opportunity to downgrade Sbrocca to Foster. His zeal for including the restaurateur in every conversation was so obvious that Foster knew there was an agenda. "At the time, I thought he was jealous and just wanted me to like him," she says. "But now I think he was trying to get me mad at Romano so I would tell him information. But I didn't know anything. As far as I know, Romano is a very fine person who got a really bad rap."
As Stedino was striving to rile his new contact, he was also trying to worm his way into her life. He dispensed as much advice as a fortuneteller during that first visit; he adopted the role of a caring mentor. As their sharing ended, he told her, "I think I made a new friend today."
"You did, and I made a new friend," she said.
It set a tone of instant intimacy that lasted until Foster read about AzScam in the papers. Foster and Stedino would sign off on the telephone by declaring "Love you!" to each other. She says he telephoned her often in the evenings just to express concern, saying, "You looked a little lonely when I saw you today." For Foster, a young woman without deep friendships, this one seemed like the real article. "He was calling me nearly every night, saying, 'I am here for you,'" she remembers. "I am a sucker for that." Within four days of their first meeting, she was telling Stedino that she knew she could always rely on him.
And he seemed determined to prove it to her by charging to her rescue. It was during their fourth conversation, when their friendship was eight days old, that he let drop the reference to American Express, the company that was trying to collect from Foster on a bill long overdue. The allusion was so artfully done--and it inspired Foster to reveal her own credit problems so immediately--that her attorney, Dennis Jones, wonders whether it was deliberate. "He seemed to be aware of the fact that she had this debt," says Jones. "I just became so suspicious that they had checked her credit out in order to suck her in to ask for money."
In the transcripts, Foster repeatedly expressed aggravation about the debt to Stedino, telling him that someone had promised to pay off her credit card, but had let her down. She says today that Sbrocca had encouraged her to run up sizable expenses and declared he was good for them, then had neglected to pay AmEx despite her reminders. "I just gave up asking him. I was embarrassed," she says. Stedino soon muscled into Foster's financial affairs like an overbearing uncle, according to the transcripts. He telephoned American Express to try to calm down Foster's creditors, posing as Foster's employer and saying she would pay as she could. He also began literally tucking money into her purse when she visited him at his office--first $200 and then another $500 that he suggested she send to AmEx. Foster protested the gifts, but Stedino insisted that she had earned them by providing him with contacts. Eventually, she went to Stedino and asked for a $1,600 loan to cover the rest of the American Express bill. In all these instances, Stedino assured her that she was actually performing a lobbyist's function for him.
For it was political networking that Foster undertook to perform for Stedino even before he began raining gifts on her; she quickly became valuable on her own and not as a conduit to Sbrocca. From her grab bag of chamber contacts, she pulled the names of legislators and others and encouraged them to meet with Stedino to discuss legalized gambling. It was she who sent in state senator Chuy Higuera, who was to become the first of the AzScam defendants to go to jail. She also sent others--Stan Barnes and Tony West--who didn't bite. The role of networker wasn't a new one for Foster. In fact, she did nothing for Stedino that she hadn't done for others, for free. A local banker who asked not to be named, a member of the chamber, says that "people phoned me to do business from all over the state because of Shiree Foster. She was really good at saying, 'You should go see Steve.'" She really cared about helping out the business climate.
She cared, he says, but she didn't do much screening. "She was the type who just tried to put Party A with Party B and you did your own due diligence," he says. "She introduced me to some people who from day one I thought were flaky." The banker describes Foster's role with Stedino as "typical Shiree Foster--trying to help people out and maybe make herself feel more important."
"My number one reason for introducing Stedino to anyone wasn't for the money," says Foster, adding that she worked no harder for Stedino than for other chamber members. "It was because I wanted Arizona's economy to do well. I thought gaming would stimulate the economy."
Upon closer questioning, she admits it wasn't the only motive: She also was concerned for her job. She says she was under tremendous pressure at work to bring in more big-business members, and that Stedino had promised her all his casinos would join once gambling was legalized. "I was looking at my career, wanting to do the best job I could, thinking my boss is going to be tickled pink when he sees this one," she says. "I wanted Stedino to be happy."
She wanted it on more than one level: Despite their professed friendship and her dependence on him, she was a little afraid of Stedino. It is easy to see why upon reading the transcripts: Hand-in-hand with proclaiming his affection, Stedino undermined Foster's self-esteem and intimidated her. This is not a difficult thing to do: Foster's associates describe her as a "pleaser" who will subjugate her own views, and she rarely gives herself a break: Even when she is managing to stick up for herself, she is usually simultaneously putting herself down. (My father told me I was dumb," she recounts during an interview, with some resentment. "But I'm not sure I am that dumb.")
She is, in short, a woman who often feels controlled by her need for friends and associates and who does nothing to free herself, a theme that surfaces again and again in the transcripts and in present-day conversations. "I like for people to like me, Tony. . . . It's the story of my life," she told Stedino. "Either they get what they want from me . . . or they drop me. I can't ever have a relationship with people because either I play it their way or 'Screw you, Shiree . . . I don't care if you were laying in traffic, I'm not gonna pull you out of there.'"
She was never a match for the wily Stedino.
He berated her for forgetting to return a call, saying that she had failed a "test." He told her that he gave only one chance to his friends--that once they had revealed themselves to be less than true, he would never have them back. As he was dispensing constant advice, he backhandedly chided her for needing it, calling her a "babe in the woods." He accused her of chasing around after men to the point that Foster feared he was having her watched. He criticized Sbrocca as worthless, then accused Foster of wanting to go back to him.
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.
"That's okay, that's okay," said Foster. "I'm worried about this thing with you. . . . I just wish you would just, um . . . get out til the smoke clears or something."
Still unaware of the true nature of their friendship, she called back that afternoon to report to Stedino every word that she and Collier had exchanged. She asked him this about Collier's curiosity about her role in introducing legislators to Stedino: "Why would they be pressuring me about introductions? What's the deal on that?"
When she read about AzScam and "Tony Vincent" in the Republic, she was relieved that Stedino was a cop instead of the gangster some part of her had suspected. She still didn't know she was in trouble. She called Stedino on his beeper, unable to believe they weren't still friends. She wanted him to explain the "sting" to her directly.
She never heard from him again.
@body:"When she came in here, she was like the scene in Bambi where the mother says, 'Run, Bambi, run!' And he runs and runs and runs and then looks for his mother. She was lost," says Jones of his first meeting with Foster.
If you spend much time with her today, she doesn't seem to have found her way, although she pays determined lip service to it. "AzScam has been nothing but positive for me. I have dealt with things in my past, the need to please," she says one day. "It's okay to be me." The smile she flashes begins and ends with her lips.
But a day or two later, she telephones to cancel an appointment, her voice choked with tears. She holes up by herself for days, citing "depression" and "pressure." (These same complaints surfaced often in her conversations with Stedino; they are themes in her life.) Her boyfriend, Armand Verdone, says she has had "four bad days to one good day" since he met her last September, and Verdone figures it's all because of AzScam. He says, "She needs continual reassurance."
And yet some of her friends believe AzScam has changed her for the better. "She is a very attractive woman and I think she lived off those looks--going to nice places, having boyfriends that would spend money on her for clothing," says attorney Jones. "But I think she has opened her eyes as to who her friends are in life--that people can act like friends and not be friends, and not just Stedino. I think she realized that a lot of those high rollers are like that."
If she realized it, it wasn't until she'd received a few more hard knocks, however. She says that the months after AzScam were ones of continuing disillusionment. First Sbrocca was indicted, making her wonder, "Is he also not the man he claimed?" Then, she says, she began dating a fellow who turned out to be a con man wanted by the Scottsdale police. "He ended up stealing my credit cards," she says. "The police wanted me to meet him somewhere and help them nab him." (She declined.)
And then there was the out-of-state lawyer, who didn't bother to telephone her during an entire week when she was stressed out and ill. (I'm tired of being put on the back burner," she says, another refrain she lobbed frequently at Stedino when discussing her relationships with men.)
It has all seemed a continuation of themes, as did the job she briefly held after leaving the chamber: She says she was sexually harassed. "My boss was always grabbing me and propositioning me, saying, 'You need this job, you'll never find another one with that indictment hanging over your head,'" she claims. "He came to see me three times at night and I huddled down in my kitchen because I didn't want him to see me through the miniblinds."
The experience, together with Stedino's published revelations about the leers of the Phoenix police, has been salt in her wounds. "I feel like such a fool," she says. "I feel so degraded."
Although maybe it is over now; she says that she wouldn't trade boyfriend Verdone "for anything." Her job at his car dealership is a welcome success experience, although she still misses the days of heady networking at the chamber. (She also misses having a salary; she complains one day that having Verdone simply pay her rent and other bills directly rather than put her on the payroll undercuts her independence. She declares feelingly that unless he starts paying her, she'll stop going in to work. Asked later whether their salary dispute is resolved, Verdone says, "I am not offering any response on that. I am just telling you that I don't think you should be printed that, period.")
Foster spent the holiday season doing outreach with Verdone's customers, dropping off gift baskets and checking to be sure their experiences with the dealership were all they'd hoped. Verdone says he couldn't be more pleased with the results, and that he will expand her PR responsibilities for as long as Shiree wants to continue working for him. "I have not really had a blond girlfriend before," he confides. "I have always had this image of blondes. But Shiree is very, very intelligent.
"I know how guys are in the car business: When you cold-call somebody, they don't want to talk to you. This is the first time I have put a female out on accounts, and they will stop whatever they are doing to talk to her.
"Her looks don't hurt any.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.