The bribery trial of a former regulator, a utility owner and a lobbyist has tentacles that stretch to many others in Arizona’s political universe – some more than others.
Take for example Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns, who has been interviewed by federal investigators on the case. He’s been described by defense attorneys as a “rogue commissioner” determined to “burn down the house at the Arizona Corporation Commission.”
His wife, Gayle Burns, is portrayed in defense motions as a “mother figure” to Kelly Norton, the government’s star witness and ex-wife of Jim Norton, a lobbyist who has been indicted.
And then there is former Secretary of State and former Senate President Ken Bennett.
Bennett told the Arizona Capitol Times he was asked to be a character witness for Sherry Pierce, who was also indicted alongside her husband, former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce.
The Burnses and Bennett are among 82 prospective witnesses who may be called to testify at the trial scheduled to begin May 30. The Pierces, Jim Norton and Johnson Utilities owner George Johnson face charges of felony conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud.
They have pleaded not guilty.
The witness list, jury questions and written motions signal a narrative that includes a wealthy businessman who throws his weight around, an extra-marital affair and the subsequent bitter end of a partnership – both in love and allegedly illegal business dealings.
Barry Aarons, who has lobbied at the Legislature for 40 years, said the public is in for a bad impression of Arizona politics no matter the outcome of the trial.
“It reinforces that sense people have that the whole thing is corrupt,” said Aarons, who is not on the witness list.
“It’s kind of like when you pull a string on a woven garment – it just starts to fall apart.”
But the question is what ramifications the case holds for the political community, and to Aarons, the answer is that life will go on for most people.
He pointed to the recent ouster of former Rep. Don Shooter after a revealing investigation into allegations he had sexually harassed women at the Capitol for years.
Aarons said that has made him think twice about what or how he says something to ensure it’s not taken the wrong way.
But the case against the Pierces and Norton has not had the same effect. He has not changed how he does business, nor does he believe it has changed how others in the lobbying world conduct themselves.
“But when you get to the next level, there’s a cynicism out there that is validated by this,” Aarons said, adding that some might say “these guys were skimming money. But for $30,000? Really? That’s like seeing a quarter on the ground and looking both ways before you pick it up.”
According to the witness list, that “next level” includes a sitting congressman, former elected officials and current candidates for office, bureaucrats and others in the political inner circle.
The part some people on the witness list may play is more obvious than others.
Bennett said he was told he may not be called to “reinforce the idea that Sherry (Pierce) has been very active in political things” because there are others who know her far better.
One of those might be former Congressman Matt Salmon, now Arizona State University’s vice president for governmental affairs.
Salmon, a potential witness for the defense, declined to discuss the case with the Arizona Capitol Times, but pointed out that Sherry Pierce worked for him for four years while he served in Congress.
She’s also worked for Congressman Andy Biggs, who is also a potential witness for the defense.
Perhaps they would be able to offer a more holistic picture of Sherry Pierce and her personal knowledge of Arizona’s political scene as prosecutors allege she served little to no real purpose at a consulting firm established by the Nortons.
The indictment alleged that the Pierces received $31,500 unlawfully through the consulting firm directed by Jim Norton, but ultimately from Johnson, in exchange for Gary Pierce’s “favorable and unlawful actions on matters before the ACC.”
The purpose of other potential witnesses is not quite as clear.
Don Shooter, for example, is listed as a witness for the defense. But nothing so far raised in the case indicates what part the expelled lawmaker may play.
And Bob Burns’ role remains unclear, even though his wife’s is more certain. According to a summary and partial transcript of Gayle Burns’ interview with investigators, Kelly Norton revealed to her the early stages of the alleged bribery scheme.
Bob Burns has declined to share what he told the FBI about the case, but he has publicly acknowledged that he too was interviewed by investigators.
Burns is the only sitting commissioner on the witness list. Former commissioners Doug Little and Bob Stump are listed among the defense’s potential witnesses, and former commissioners Brenda Burns – no relation to Bob Burns – Sandra Kennedy and Kris Mayes are listed for the government; all served terms at the Corporation Commission that overlapped with Gary Pierce’s tenure.
What they might have to say has yet to be revealed.
But battles over limiting the scope of evidence presented to the jury has been more revealing.
Judge John Tuchi of U.S. District Court in Arizona is going to allow the jury to hear Gayle Burns’ testimony after Sherry Pierce’s attorney, Ashley Adams, tried to argue her statements would merely be hearsay.
And they’ll see which elected officials Johnson has given money to over the years.
His attorney, Woody Thompson, argued unsuccessfully that his political campaign contributions would be offered as evidence for nothing more than to make the “false inference” that the businessman has engaged in “inappropriate” behavior elsewhere in his career.
This is not the first time Johnson has been involved in what appears to be a shady arrangement.
For years, Johnson Utilities customers in Pinal County have alleged abuses of power and overbilling among a plethora of complaints.
Tuchi is not going to allow the customer complaints or the investigations into Johnson’s company by other agencies to be heard.
At least one prospective witness has received money from Johnson, according to OpenSecrets.org’s donor database.
In 2009, Johnson gave $1,000 to Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, who is on the witness list for the defense.
Aarons said he doesn’t know Johnson beyond what everyone has heard come out of Pinal County from angry customers and salacious headlines.
But he’s known the Pierces and Nortons for years, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t believe they would have knowingly broken the law.
That confidence in their characters extended to Kelly Norton, he said, even though she was the government’s key to learning of the alleged scheme.
According to motions filed by the defense, Kelly Norton told investigators about the scheme in March 2017 during an interview regarding a “related investigation.”
All along, prosecutors have speculated that the defense will seek to discredit her actions on the basis that she was punishing Jim Norton, her ex.
According to Gayle Burns, Kelly Norton confided in her about an affair Jim Norton had while they were still married.
And the defense has argued she sought to “get revenge on her husband.”
The defense’s case may very well hinge on calling Kelly Norton’s motivations into question, so much so that the Nortons’ separation made it into the jury questionnaire in an attempt to divine any ill will toward divorce and adultery.
“Do you believe that someone who has an affair is a bad person?” prospective jurors will be asked.
Tuchi did, however, exclude a more existential follow-up to that: “Do you believe that sometimes people just fall out of love?”
Guilty or not, the damage is done.
“That’s the cynicism of the people,” Aarons said.
For about $30,000, so much has been called into question.