Gayle Burns will be allowed to testify in the so-called “Ghost Lobby” trial after U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi determined the defense had opened the door to her testimony.
The judge’s decision is critical because it could take the trial down a path that leads to the investigation from which this case emerged, dubbed “Operation High Grid” in court records.
It has been widely known the FBI has been looking into certain statewide races in the 2014 election, and Gary Pierce has acknowledged talking to the FBI about the 2014 race for secretary of state, in which his son, Justin Pierce, was a candidate.
Tuchi has taken steps to keep the larger investigation out of the ongoing trial, and he advised attorneys on both sides to avoid the other investigation in their questioning.
But that may prove difficult moving forward.
The government has alleged that former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce was bribed in exchange for his votes favorable to water utility owner George Johnson in 2011 and 2012. The alleged scheme included Pierce’s wife, Sherry Pierce, who the government says was given a “no-show job” at a firm through which $31,500 was funneled to her husband. The firm, KNB Consulting, was operated by Kelly Norton, an unindicted co-conspirator turned star witness for the government, who said she was “bullied” into the arrangement by her then-husband, lobbyist Jim Norton.
The Pierces, Johnson and Jim Norton are now facing charges of felony conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud.
Before the trial began, they were offered plea deals in exchange for their cooperation on the “High Grid” investigation, but they rejected the deals and maintain their innocence.
Burns was a “mother figure” to Kelly Norton, who confided in Burns about the alleged scheme. Burns was subsequently interviewed by the FBI about what Norton disclosed to her and when – the latter being of significance.
Norton has said she told Burns about the alleged scheme while it was ongoing, expressing to her that she knew it was wrong from the beginning. But Jim Norton testified that his then-wife did not raise concerns about impropriety until they were in the middle of a divorce. Burns, presumably, will be able to clarify the timeline.
And if she is called to testify to that effect, Sherry Pierce’s attorney, Ashley Adams, told the court the defense will call Gayle Burns’ husband, Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns, who was previously stricken from the witness list.
The inclusion of Bob Burns and any testimony Gayle Burns may offer regarding when Norton told her about the alleged scheme both get at the heart of a central question: Was the scheme just a fabrication by Kelly Norton?
A fabrication the defense suggested the Burnses were involved in.
“We think that the Burnses had some influence over Kelly Norton to come forward in this case,” Adams said.
Jim Norton’s attorney, Ivan Mathew, suggested they had a reason to go along with a false story after legal battles Bob Burns fought with “the other utility,” namely Arizona Public Service, were fruitless.
Burns has sought the disclosure of charitable and campaign spending by APS , particularly in regard to the 2014 election cycle.
Mathew further suggested that because they were fruitless, Bob Burns enlisted the government’s help to accomplish his goals. According to Mathew, Burns has been interviewed by the FBI at least five times.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Battista flatly denied that Bob Burns has driven or directed the investigation, but from the defense’s perspective, he has at least sought to participate in and influence it.
In addition to Bob Burns, Adams noted former Corporation Commission Bob Stump and “our clients” could be called, though she did not specify who she was referring to; Sherry Pierce and Jim Norton have already testified, but Gary Pierce and George Johnson have not.
The defendants’ attorneys had previously expected to rest their case on June 22, but with additional witnesses proposed, that may no longer be the case.
The case is currently scheduled to run through June 29. After that date, the attorneys risk losing up to two jurors being of scheduling conflicts, which would leave them without alternate jurors as they head into deliberations.
If 12 jurors are not remaining to debate the case, a mistrial will be declared.