The bribery trial of former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce and his wife Sherry Pierce is a clash of political paradigms.
It pits conflicting narratives of the greedy, corrupt political operatives out only for themselves versus the humble public servants seeking to do right by the people.
The government’s opening statements in U.S. District Court in Phoenix today alleged the Pierces, strapped for cash, were willing to line the pockets of water utility owner George Johnson if it also meant lining their own.
“A scheme was devised and money was paid,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Galati. “It was that simple.”
Galati said the case is not about whether the Pierces are nice people or whether they have friends in high places – it’s about whether Gary Pierce’s actions on the Corporation Commission were “honestly taken or corruptly taken.”
The defense countered that the Pierces never would have put all they had worked so hard to accomplish on the line for little more than $30,000.
“The government would like you to believe that they would give all of that up… for $31,000,” Sherry Pierce’s attorney Ashley Adams told the jury. “Mrs. Pierce will tell you it wouldn’t have mattered if it was $31 million. That’s just not who she is.”
The Pierces’ lives revolve around family, faith and service, Adams said, and “crime is not something that is in Sherry Pierce’s DNA.”
Adams and Pat Gitre, Gary Pierce’s attorney, said Sherry Pierce’s work for the firm established by indicted lobbyist Jim Norton’s wife and unindicted co-conspirator, Kelly Norton, was legitimate, that she earned the monthly payments of $3,500, that she was a knowledgeable political consultant continuing the sort of work she had done for years.
And all the while, her husband did his job for the Corporation Commission in good faith.
If the jurors believe that characterization – that Sherry Pierce did the work for which she was paid – Adams said that would mean there was no quid pro quo scheme, and they must find the defendants not guilty.
The story of the Nortons’ relationship stands in contrast to the Pierces.
Kelly Norton revealed the bribery scheme alleged in the indictment to federal investigators, admitting her own part in the web of payments that went from Johnson to the Pierces. The payments were allegedly in exchange for Gary Pierce’s favorable votes.
Kelly Norton was painted by her now ex-husband’s attorney, Ivan Mathew, as a scorned woman seeking revenge.
Mathew offered a post on Kelly Norton’s personal Facebook page on the day the defendants were arraigned as evidence. It was a poem titled “Karma.”
Each defendant – the Pierces, Jim Norton and George Johnson – have been charged with felony conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud. They were offered plea deals in exchange for their cooperation on a larger case from which their case, dubbed “Operation Ghost Lobby,” emerged. They rejected the offers and continue to maintain their innocence.
Johnson’s attorney Woodrow Thompson added to the narrative about the Pierces, arguing his client had a bona fide relationship with KNB Consulting, the firm established by Kelly Norton that employed Sherry Pierce for work in Pinal County.
Thompson said the Pierces claimed the income on their tax returns, and that documentation of the payments from Johnson to Norton to Pierce does not support the government’s account.
“You will not hear any evidence of fat envelopes stuffed under doormats,” he said. “This was all paid by check in plain view with a paper trail.”
But Thompson said little about Johnson himself, a man well-known – but not especially well-liked – in Pinal County where his company, Johnson Utilities, operates.
Galati said Johnson was not happy with two decisions by the Corporation Commission regarding a rate increase case and his bid for a tax pass-through policy to apply to his company.
So he bribed Gary Pierce, Galati said, and got what he wanted in the end.
Pierce voted in 2010 against the rate hike, but in favor of it in 2011 when he was chairman. And he voted to give Johnson Utilities owners the ability to pass their income tax liability on to customers.
But Thompson poked holes in the government’s timeline.
He said Gary Pierce’s affirmative vote on the rate case came months before his wife was hired by Kelly Norton, and he voiced a “philosophical attachment” to the tax pass-through policy change years before that.
Additionally, as he pointed out repeatedly, other commissioners also voted in favor of Johnson Utilities in those cases, yet their reasons for doing so were not called into question.
One such commissioner was Bob Burns, who currently sits on the Corporation Commission and who may be called to testify as may his wife, Gayle Burns, who was a “mother figure” Kelly Norton confided in about the alleged scheme.
The defense sought unsuccessfully to keep Gayle Burns from testifying, and the attorneys continue to question the credibility of Bob Burns.
In his opening statement, Ivan Mathew told the jury Bob Burns “has an ax to grind” against the commission itself.
Former Commissioners Kris Mayes, Brenda Burns – no relation to Bob Burns, Sandra Kennedy, Doug Little and Bob Stump are also on the list of witnesses.
On May 30, 16 jurors were selected to sit through the arduous court process as the parties debate the timeline and legitimacy of Sherry Pierce’s work.
They include ten women and six men. Four alternates will be selected at random at the conclusion of arguments and just before the final 12 jurors begin deliberations.
Several individuals said they had financial services backgrounds and experience with both non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements. Two have been divorced, and one woman was once a Johnson Utilities customer, though she said she had not developed an opinion about the company or its owner in that time.
Also among the jurors is a man who told the court during the selection process that he would have to reschedule a hip surgery to participate, and a graphic designer from Arizona State University who was not especially eager to serve – he anticipated his absence from work would put his department far behind in its summer workload.
But he’ll be there until at least June 29, when closing arguments are expected to conclude.
The defense in particular has expressed concerns that more time may be needed. If that is the case, U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi said the case would be put on hold for the week of July 4 to resume the week of July 9.