IF JOSEPH STEDINO is telling the truth, the large man who is pulling up in a Volvo in front of Long Wong's on 16th Street is the man whose word made AzScam happen. He is the person whom members of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office trusted so much that they built an elaborate and expensive instrument for betrayal around him.

Because of him, seven political careers have ended, and Arizona was held up again in the national spotlight as a land of near-constant political scandal. His name is Gary Bartlett.

Of course, Joseph Stedino, an undercover agent for the county attorney, is a thrice-convicted felon whose entire life story is one of gambling and making book with organized crime figures who has admitted under oath that he's good at lying.

On the other hand, if Bartlett is telling the truth, Stedino is lying, and the County Attorney's Office engineered the sting without any reason to believe Arizona state legislators could be bribed. In that case, the County Attorney's Office engaged in entrapment.

This is the story: According to the AzScam transcripts and further details provided by undercover agent Joseph Stedino during depositions, it was Bartlett, a state hearing officer and glad-hander in the Democratic party, who first told Stedino that certain legislators' votes on the issue of legalized gambling were available for a price. Further, Bartlett said that, with his connections, he was the man capable of fingering vulnerable legislators and luring them into Stedino's sticky net. He said, `There are plenty of legislators down there that I can buy,'" Stedino has testified to Murray Miller, the lawyer for indicted ex-legislator Carolyn Walker.

According to Stedino, it was solely on the strength of Bartlett's word that AzScam was created.

Whom should you believe? Does anything that is known about Stedino inspire confidence? Can Bartlett, a controversial figure in Arizona since the Seventies, be trusted?

In this, his first in-depth interview since AzScam broke last year, Bartlett would like you to believe he can.

He says he didn't do anything wrong. The unholy mess that is still being played out downtown in the form of former Senator Walker's and lobbyist Ron Tapp's trial-well, it isn't his fault. Bartlett wants it on the record that everything Stedino has said about him is a lie that serves the political interests of the County Attorney's Office.

In order for AzScam to be a clean investigation and not entrapment, someone had to turn Stedino on to the fact that there were legislators that would take a bribe," he says, referring to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires government sting operations to prove predisposition to commit a crime. (Under the new ruling, the county attorney may have engaged in entrapment even if Bartlett did identify bribable legislators. Nothing has surfaced in the transcripts or anywhere else to suggest that Bartlett had knowledge of specific legislators who'd accepted bribes before; he surmises to Stedino only that he thinks they can be bought. This sort of conjecture doesn't necessarily prove a predisposition to crime.)

Bartlett says it is the need to prove predisposition that has caused Stedino to fabricate Bartlett as a culprit; upon closer examination, all the agent's proof" falls apart.

Ask Stedino to show you a videotape of me telling him legislators can be bribed!" Bartlett cries. The audio tapes can't be trusted, he explains, because they are badly transcribed-many of the comments attributed to Bartlett were actually spoken by someone else-and because key conversations between himself and Stedino are missing. My notes show 200 conversations with Stedino and he said there were 30. Sometimes he called me eight or ten times a day. Where are the other calls?" Bartlett wants to know. ÔI am going to be able to prove at my trial that Stedino himself came up with the idea of bribing legislators." (Bartlett is indicted on three felony counts as a result of AzScam, and he will be tried sometime after the trial of Walker and Tapp has ended.)

Not only did he not originate the idea of bribery, but he opposed it morally when it arose, Bartlett says. He describes his brief tenure as Stedino's lobbyist, wherein he agreed to streamline the issue of legalized gambling through the Arizona State Legislature in exchange for $125,000 a year, as a period of time when Stedino was the corrupter and Bartlett was Arizona's very own and indignant straight arrow. Stedino suggested to me that he wanted to influence public officials and I refused. He never even used the word `bribe' around me; he knew I wouldn't deal with it. If I knew someone was being bribed, I would take action to prevent it. Every time Stedino suggested anything improper, I said I would resign."

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Deborah Laake