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Lobbyist Jim Norton disputes ex-wife’s testimony in bribery trial

Lobbyist Jim Norton, who is under indictment in a bribery scheme, leaves U.S. District Court in Phoenix on June 7, 2017.

Lobbyist Jim Norton, who is under indictment in a bribery scheme, leaves U.S. District Court in Phoenix on June 7, 2017.

Jim Norton said on the witness stand Tuesday he did not force his now ex-wife, Kelly Norton, to hire Sherry Pierce at her firm, but that he urged her to do so because he had a stake in their success.

Norton not only disputed Kelly Norton’s accounting of events leading up to their involvement in an alleged scheme to bribe Pierce’s husband, former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, but also her characterization of their marriage.

Norton, the Pierces, and water utility owner George Johnson, whose company bears his name, are on trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in an alleged bribery and fraud scheme.

Norton testified that Johnson had retained his firm on and off for years. The water utility owner tasked R&R Partners with projects related to Pinal County though the majority of the firm’s business was conducted at the state Capitol.

Norton said he eventually told Johnson he needed additional resources to accomplish goals related to the incorporation of San Tan Valley, which he said “just would not go away,” and the expansion of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, for which Norton had been seeking candidates willing to work with Johnson.

“I suggested a number of pieces for this puzzle,” Norton said, adding it was around September 2011 that he raised the need for additional support. Sherry Pierce was hired by Kelly Norton’s firm, KNB Consulting, in November of that year.

Kelly Norton

Kelly Norton

Kelly Norton testified she was “bullied” into hiring Pierce, that her then-husband even gave her the silent treatment until she complied.

But Jim Norton said that was not true.

Asked whether the hiring of Pierce was a requirement to work on Johnson’s behalf, Norton said, “Require is a strong word. I would say it was a strong suggestion.”

He said he was happy to connect his wife with some of his clients, like Johnson, but that he had a responsibility to ensure the partnership was successful. Pierce, he said, had connections in Pinal County and the “gravitas” to get the job done.

And not only did he instruct his wife to use R&R Partners’ contract language with Pierce, he testified, Norton also determined Pierce would be paid $3,500 a month for her work – $1,000 more than his own wife made off the arrangement, which he said was a point of contention.

Kelly Norton resisted the idea because she believed she could do the job herself, and he said she seemed to hold onto her frustration over the matter throughout Pierce’s employment with her firm.

“I had hoped that 20 years in the business… would override any initial resistance,” Norton said. “I was wrong.”

She may have been upset, “borderline angry,” he said, but he testified that Kelly Norton never suggested she believed they were doing something improper or illegal until they were in the process of getting a divorce.

There’s no cover up,” Norton said.

But he also testified that about what he called “the headline test,” the idea that it does not matter whether you’ve done everything by the books if people – and the headlines – perceive otherwise.

“Perception is reality,” he said.

His attorney, Steven Cheifetz, asked him whether hiring a government official’s family member would be appropriate, for example, and Norton said it would be if the individual was qualified to do the work.

However, the government has argued Pierce was merely given a “no-show job” in exchange for $31,500 over nine months. That money was allegedly intended as bribes from Johnson to her husband in exchange for his favorable votes on the Corporation Commission.

It was Kelly Norton who revealed the alleged scheme, but her testimony for the government, which she gave in exchange for immunity, was not limited to any potentially criminal acts.

She also spoke at length about what she described as her “horrible” private life while still married to Jim Norton.

He disputed that, and testified that he never pressured his wife into doing something she did not want to do.

He described her as independent and strong-willed, and said that what started as a good marriage was interrupted by low points – he did not refer to anything specific, such as multiple affairs Kelly Norton said he had.

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