The FBI may be interested in pursuing the deleted texts of a state utility regulator that an Arizona judge has ruled are not public.
Scott Peterson, executive director of the Checks and Balances Project, said Wednesday that federal agents interviewed him for nearly an hour and a half last week about what he knows about the 2014 Arizona Corporation Commission election.
Peterson said he turned over data he already has, including a log of texts between Bob Stump and others. And he said he told them what he knew and suspected of what happened in that race that caused him to file suit to get the actual texts.
“They were interested in what I had to say,” he said.
A judge rebuffed Peterson’s lawsuit, saying what little was recovered from the phone was not public.
But if the FBI takes an interest, it could subpoena the phone. And its forensic experts may be able to recover more than those hired by the attorney general’s office.
The interview comes on the heels of the FBI having interviewed former Commissioner Gary Pierce about the 2014 race for secretary of state.
His son, Justin, was a Republican hopeful for that post. Allegations were made — denied by both — that the elder Pierce used his position on the utility panel to get financial support for his son’s campaign from companies that are regulated by the commission.
There is no doubt but that the FBI is taking a look at what happened that year.
“The FBI is currently conducted a long term investigation related to the financing of certain statewide races in the 2014 election cycle,” agent Matthew Reinsmoen said last month.
The FBI already has subpoenaed documents from the commission. And officials at Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility, acknowledged they have been asked to cooperate.
But the information Peterson said he provided — and he said the agents were interested enough to spend so much time with him on — relates not to the Justin Pierce campaign but to the successful 2014 bid for the commission itself by Republicans Doug Little and Tom Forese.
Whether the FBI actually is interested in the corporation commission race, though, remains to be seen: Peterson admitted he contacted the FBI, versus them reaching out to him.
Peterson has been harping on questions of whether Stump, then chairman of the panel and not up for reelection, was coordinating spending on behalf of Little and Forese by outside groups, including APS.
His main evidence to date consists of a log of the texts to and from the commission-owned phone that Stump was using around the time of the 2014 election.
That log showed dozens of messages between Stump and Little and Forese who were in a four-way race for the two slots on the GOP ticket. Their Republican foes, Luci Mason and Vernon Parker, were running on a platform of wanting to protect and mandate the use of more solar power.
There also were a series of texts with the campaign manager for Little and Forese, who were running as a team, along with Scot Mussi, the head of the Free Enterprise Club which was spending more than $300,000 on behalf of the two candidates backed by Stump.
And Stump also was texting at the same time with APS executive Barbara Lockwood.
Neither APS nor Pinnacle West gave money to either Little or Forese, with Arizona law prohibiting such direct donations. But APS has refused to confirm or deny that it funneled money into that race through contributions to independent expenditure committees which are not required to report their donors.
Little and Forese won the GOP primary and eventually beat their Democrat foes.
Peterson filed suit to find out what was in the messages. But that was were thwarted after Stump admitted he routinely deleted texts and then he subsequently discarded his state-issued phone.
Forensic investigators retained by the attorney general’s office were able to recover some information.
A judge subsequently ruled that none of what was recovered was public and rebuffed Peterson’s offer to pay for another expert to examine the phone. The judge then ordered what was found sealed.
That, however, could be undone if the FBI wants to take a look and opts to subpoena the phone.
Stump said Wednesday he has not spoken with the FBI. And he stressed that Peterson called the FBI and not the other way around.
“I’m sure they get many wacky calls, of course, from fringe groups like Checks and Balances,” Stump said in a statement. And he said nothing more will come of this than the public records lawsuit.
“After losing in court every single time, Peterson still clings to his conspiratorial fantasies in an effort to remain relevant and keep his dark-money funded job,” Stump said. That “dark money” reference is because Peterson’s group has gotten some of its money indirectly from SolarCity which has been in an ongoing battle with APS over rules and charges for customers with rooftop solar units.
The attorney general’s office still has an open investigation into what was the original probe of Gary Pierce.
Those stem from allegations that Pierce, then on the commission, had met secretly with Don Brandt, chief executive officer of APS, and Don Robinson, his predecessor, while the utility was in the middle of a rate case before the agency. Those were laid out in a letter from a whistleblower, later identified as a former commission staffer, to Attorney General Mark Brnovich and others.
That same complaint said Pierce used his office to coerce commission staffers to expedite the formation of a corporation that later spent $186,000 in the 2012 election on mailers to drum up support for Stump’s reelection and help elect fellow Republicans Bob Burns and Susan Bitter Smith.
Pierce, first elected to the commission in 2006 and reelected in 2010 before retiring in 2014, said he has done nothing wrong, saying he suspects much of the inquiry by the FBI and others is “politically driven.”