Year after statehouse probe launched, lawmakers wonder about lasting impact

February 1, 1992

Associated Press

PHOENIX — Arizona Senate President Pete Rios was home doing some paperwork a year ago when he got a call from a reporter about undercover police sting into gambling.

The focus of that sting turned to the Statehouse and it eventually became known as AzScam, a scandal that sent shock waves through state government. Rios said he still hasn’t figured out why authorities targeted legislators.

“I asked them, ‘How did you get from this point to that point. You say you started out with an investigation of social gambling. How did you get from social gambling to the Legislature?”‘

In the year since that call, five House members and two senators were forced out of the Legislature.

Six pleaded guilty to various counts of bribery, conspiracy and campaign- finance violations for taking money in return for promises to support gambling legislation. One, former Sen. Carolyn Walker, awaits trial.

More than a dozen others — including a former lawmaker, an unsuccessful candidate for state treasurer and a handfull of lobbyists and political activists — were caught in the AzScam web.

Television viewers became familiar with the sight of lawmakers receiving stacks of cash during secretly filmed meetings with paid police informer Joseph Stedino, known to unsuspecting targets as a shady underworld character named J. Anthony Vincent.

Stedino, as Vincent, passed out tens of thousands of dollars to lawmakers who promised to vote for legalized gambling. He befriended them. They told him things that surprised, titillated and disturbed.

Investigators defended the sting operation – which was reported to have cost as much as $1 million – as a successful attempt to root out corruption, to find legislators willing to sell their votes for cash.

“The message we need to be sending is that public corruption is not acceptable and if you do it we’re going to be tough on you,” Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said last week when former Rep. Bobby Raymond was granted parole after serving six months of his two-year AzScam sentence.

But others believe the message of AzScam, if it ever was clear, has become clouded.

“I’ve always thought — I’ve never said it — but I’ve always thought that (the police) had some individuals that they targeted,” said Rios, a Democrat. “I’ve never figured just what was the motivation.”

Rios said he never received a satisfactory answer from police, but they have consistently denied there were any specific targets in the probe.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Patterson also has questions about the investigation and the motivation of Romley and then-Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega.

“I’d like to know the why, the genesis of it,” Patterson said. “What was the point? What were they trying to accomplish?”

Neither Patterson nor Rios believes AzScam will have a lasting impact on the Legislature, aside from making lawmakers more aware of potential conflicts of interest and possibly a little more careful in their dealings with lobbyists and special interests.

“I just have a hard time believing AzScam has fundamentally impacted the Legislature,” Patterson said. “We’ve probably done some things to improve our image and that probably isn’t all bad.”

But Rios said nothing was done or can be done to make sure AzScam won’t happen again.

“There is nothing we can do here in the Legislature. There is nothing they can do,” Rios said. “There is no law we can pass to instill moral ethics in people. You either have that or you don’t.”