Opening statements heard at trial for former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce on bribery

More from this show

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.”

TED SIMONS: OPENING STATEMENTS WERE MADE TODAY FOR THE TRIAL OF PIERCE, HIS WIFE SHERRY ALONG WITH UTILITY OWNER GEORGE JOHNSON AND LOBBYIST JIM NORTON HAS PLEADED NOT GUILTY TO BRIBELY AND CONSPIRACY CHARGES. WE HAVE RYAN RANDAZZO, WHO WAS IN THE COURTROOM TODAY AND YOU HAVE BEEN COVERING THIS CORPORATION COMMISSION. OPENING STATEMENTS, WHAT DID WE HEAR?

RYAN RANDAZZO: WE HEARD FROM THE PROSECUTION. THEY TRIED TO BOIL DOWN A COMPLICATED CASE AND TRY TO MAKE IT SIMPLE SAYING LOOK, YOU HAD A STATE REGULATOR. HIS JOB IS TO BE IMPARTIAL AND SET THE UTILITY RATES. HE APPROVED HIGHER RATES FOR THIS WATER COMPANY, AND THERE WAS A QUID PRO QUO. HE DID THAT BECAUSE THERE WAS MONEY BEING PAID TO HIS WIFE IN RETURN FOR HIS FAVORABLE DECISION TO RAISE RATES. IT ACTUALLY INVOLVED TWO RATE CASES OVER THE COURSE OF SIX YEARS. SO THE PROSECUTION TRIED TO TIGHTEN THAT UP. THEN WE HEARD FROM FOUR DIFFERENT DEFENSE ATTORNEYS BECAUSE THERE ARE FOUR DEFENDANTS. IT'S FOUR AGAINST ONE FEELING IN THE COURTROOM. THEY ALL SAID WELL, THERE IS GOOD REASON FOR WHY THESE RATES WERE INCREASED. OTHER COMMISSIONERS HAD TO VOTE, HE WASN'T THE ONLY ONE WHO APPROVED THEM.THE PAYMENTS TO THE WIFE WAS LEGITIMATE AND SHE HAD A REAL JOB. THEY TRIED TO RAISE DOUBTS.

TED SIMONS: IT'S A VERY COMPLICATED CASE, VERY LONG IN THE MAKING. BUT AT ITS CORE IT'S RELATIVELY SIMPLE. GARY PIERCE ACCUSED OF TAKING $31,000, AND ALSO TRYING TO ARRANGE FOR $350,000 WORTH OF LAND FOR HIM THROUGH A DEVELOPER BY WAY OF A LOBBYIST, CORRECT?

RYAN RANDAZZO: YES.

TED SIMONS: IS THAT PRETTY MUCH IT?

RYAN RANDAZZO: YES, AND THE LOBBYIST IS ONE OF THE DEFENDANTS.

TED SIMONS: PIERCE'S ATTORNEY COMES ON AND SAID, JUST AS YOU SAID, THE OTHER COMMISSIONERS, THEY VOTED THE SAME WAY, WHY AREN'T THEY ON TRIAL, CORRECT?

RYAN RANDAZZO: CORRECT, AND THEY RAISED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TIMELINE. THE RATES FIRST GOING EVEN FURTHER BACK IN TIME, THEY DID A RATE CASE FOR THE WATER COMPANY, JOHNSON UTILITIES, AND THEY LOWERED THEIR RATES. AND PIERCE WAS PART OF THAT VOTE. AT ONE POINT IN TIME HE DIDN'T SEE THE RATE HIKE BEING JUSTIFIED. THEN HE CAME BACK AND THEY REOPENED THE CASE AND THEY ALLOWED A RATE INCREASE FOR JOHNSON UTILITY, THEN PIERCE' WIFE GOT THIS JOB THAT THEY SAID WAS MENIAL TASKS AND THE PAYMENTS TO HER WERE REALLY A KICKBACK FOR THE FAVORABLE VOTE FOR THE UTILITY.

TED SIMONS: GARY PIERCE'S WIFE AMONG THOSE CHARGED, THE OPENING STATEMENTS FROM HER ATTORNEY, SHE WAS PAID LEGITIMATELY, AND IT WAS NOT A KICKBACK.

RYAN RANDAZZO: A LOT OF CHARACTER STATEMENTS. SHE'S AN UNSTANDING PERSON IN HER COMMUNITY. SHE'S POLITICALLY ACTIVE. THIS WAS A LEGITIMATE JOB SHE WAS HIRED TO DO. SHE WOULD NEVER BE PART OF SOMETHING LIKE A BRIBERY SCANDAL.

TED SIMONS: NOW GEORGE JOHNSON, WHO IS GEORGE JOHNSON, AND I MEAN, HE KIND OF IS AT THE BOTTOM OF ALL THIS, ISN'T HE?

RYAN RANDAZZO: HE IS. HE'S A PROMINENT DEVELOPER IN THE STATE. HE HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN A LOT OF HIGH PROFILE. I GUESS YOU COULD CALL THEM SCANDALS INVOLVING PAYMENT THAT HE HAD TO MAKE FOR ENVIRONMENT VIOLATION. HIS UTILITY COMPANY NOW BEFORE THE CORPORATION COMMISSION THEY REVIEWED THESE RATE HIKES THAT WERE GIVEN TO THE COMPANY UNDER AUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCE THAT IS NOW UNDER QUESTION. ALSO, THE REGULATORS ARE CONSIDERING WHETHER THEY NEED TO PUT A TEMPORARY MANAGER IN CHARGE OF THAT COMPANY BUS THEY'VE HAD SO MANY SEWAGE SPILLS AND GAS LEAKS.

TED SIMONS: SEPARATE AND APART FROM THIS CASE.

RYAN RANDAZZO: REALLY STEMMING FROM THE INDICTMENT OF MR. JOHNSON HIMSELF.

TED SIMONS: AND MR. JOHNSON'S ATTORNEY BASICALLY SAYS THAT PIERCE, AS YOU MENTIONED AGAIN, SUPPORTED THIS BEFORE HE WAS PAYING PIERCE'S WIFE FOR A JOB.

RYAN RANDAZZO: YES, THEY BRING UP QUESTIONS OF TIMELINE, AND THE PROSECUTION SAID THEY WEREN'T DONE. THE RATE INCREASE WAS NOT ALL THAT MR. PIERCE DID FOR GEORGE JOHNSON. THEN HE WENT BACK AND HELPED TO USHER THROUGH THIS ARCANE TAX MEASURE THAT ALLOWS COMPANY OWNERS LIKE GEORGE JOHNSON TO PASS THEIR PERSONAL INCOME TAXES ON TO THE CUSTOMERS OF THE UTILITY COMPANY. MR. JOHNSON WAS NOT THE ONLY COMPANY THAT BENEFITED FROM THIS, THERE WERE 28 OTHER WATER COMPANIES, BUT THAT'S REALLY WHAT MR. PIERCE WAS ASKED TO DO FOR MR. JOHNSON.

TED SIMONS: THEY'RE SAYING ALL THIS BECAUSE OF, I WOULD IMAGINE, AN UNINDICTED COCONSPIRATOR BEING THE WIFE OF OUR FOURTH DEFENDANT, LOBBYIST JIM NORTON.

RYAN RANDAZZO: WELL, KELLY NORTON, SHE WAS--AT THE TIME OF THIS INDICTMENT, SHE WAS THE DIRECTOR OF THE ARIZONA MINING ASSOCIATION. JIM MORTON, A PROMINENT LOBBYIST HAD MAJOR CLIENTS INCLUDING COX COMMUNICATION AND JOHNSON UTILITIES. HIS WIFE WAS CALLED THE UNINDICTED COCONSPIRATOR. IT CAME OUT THAT SHE IS THE KEY WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. SHE'S THE ONE WHO SAID THAT SHE WAS ASKED TO MAKE THESE PAYMENTS TO MR. PIERCE' WIFE ON BEHALF OF GEORGE JOHNSON. SO SHE HIRED GARY PIERCE'S WIFE SHERRY TO WORK AS A CONSULTANT FOR HER AND THE PAYMENTS WENT THROUGH KELLY.

TED SIMONS: THAT IS THE ALLEGED SCHEME THERE AS FAR AS THE TIMELINE AND THE QUESTION MATTIC, IF YOU WILL. BEEN, THE ATTORNEY FOR MR. NORTON, BASICALLY SAYS, WHAT? THIS IS A VENGEFUL EX-WIFE JUST TRYING TO GET BACK AT HER FORMER HUSBAND?

RYAN RANDAZZO: YES, AS THE CASE PROCEEDS WE'LL PROBABLY GET SOME TAUDRY DETAILS OF THEIR DIVORCE, AND THIS WAS SORT OF REVENGE FROM THE WIFE. THEY EVEN SHOWED A FACEBOOK POST SHE MADE AS THESE INDICTMENTS THAT WERE COMING DOWN THAT DWELT WITH KARMA AND GETTING TO SEE HER ENEMIES SUFFER LATE IN LIFE.

TED SIMONS: THIS THERE IS THIS LAST QUESTION, AND YOU'VE DONE A GREAT JOB OF DISTILLING THIS DOWN. BUT IS THIS SO DEEP IN THE WEEDS THAT THE JUROR, THE PUBLIC, ANYONE FOLLOWING IT THAT THEY'LL GET LOST AND DOUBT WILL COME UP AND SAY THEY COULDN'T UNDERSTAND IT.

RYAN RANDAZZO: TO BE A CORPORATION COMMISSIONER, IF YOU WIN AN ELECTION TO THAT JOB, THEY SEND YOU TO SCHOOL TO TEACH YOU HOW TO BE A CORPORATION COMMISSIONER. THE JUROR IS BEING ASKED TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEX ORGANIZATION THAT EVEN ELECTED OFFICIALS NEED TO BE SENT TO SCHOOL TO UNDERSTAND. THEY DON'T HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ONE RATE CASE BUT TWO INCREDIBLY COMPLEX RATE CASES IT WILL BE DIFFICULT FOR ANY AVERAGE CITIZEN TO SIT THROUGH THAT AND HAVE DOUBT IN THE PROCEEDINGS. WE SAW SOME OF THE LAWYERS STUMBLING OVER THINGS THAT THEY'RE STRUGGLING TO EXPLAIN WHAT THE COMMISSION IS, THAT REALLY DOES HELP THE DEFENSE IN
RAISING DOUBT AMONG THE JURORS.

TED SIMONS: IT WILL BE FASCINATING TO WATCH. GOOD TO HAVE YOU. THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

Ryan Randazzo: The Arizona Republic

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: