Opening statements heard at trial for former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce on bribery
May 31, 2018
Arizona Republic reporter Ryan Randazzo provides updates the bribery case involving former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce following a “not guilty” plead along with his wife, utility owner George Johnson and lobbyist Jim Norton.
The case involves Pierce being accused of taking $31,000 and trying to arrange for about $350,000 worth of land for him through a developer through a lobbyist. It includes the possibility that Pierce’s wife, Sherry, was handed money in exchange for her husband providing Johnson Utilities with higher rates.
“We heard from the prosecution today,” Randazzo says. “They tried to really boil down a complicated case and try and make it simple. You had a state regulator whose job is to be impartial and set utility rates, he approved higher rates for this water company in Pinal County, and there was a quid pro quo.”
The trial involves two different cases over the course of about six years. The jury also heard from all four different defense attorney for the four defendants. The explanations they were providing were trying to raise doubt, Randazzo says. Pierce wasn’t the only commissioner who voted to raise the rates. They say there were justified reasons, and Sherry had a legitimate job with Johnson Utilities.
“(The prosecution) also raised questions about the timelines,” Randazzo says. “Going farther back in time, they did a rate case for the water company Johnson Utilities and they lowered their rates. Pierce was a part of that vote. At one point in time he didn’t see a rate hike as being justified. Then he came back, they reopened the case, and they allowed a rate increase for Johnson Utilities.”
Johnson is a prominent developer in the state who has been involved in high-profile “scandals” involving environmental violations. Starting at the beginning of his indictment, regulators are considering whether they need to hire a temporary manager due to sewage spills, gas leaks, poor service and “hundreds of complaints” from customers.
Kelly Norton, ex-wife of the lobbyist and former director of the Arizona Mining Association, is the key witness for the prosecution. She claims the payments to Sherry from Johnson went through her. However, her husband’s attorney says she’s just trying to get revenge on an ex-husband.
“The complexity of this case really helps the defense,” Randazzo says. “To be a corporation commissioner, if you win election to that job, they actually send you to school to learn how to be a corporate commissioner. The jury in this case is being asked to understand this complex organization that even elected officials have to go to school to understand… It’s going to be difficult for any average citizen to sit through that and not have some doubt about these proceedings.”