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Trial ends with defendants’ claim work was lawful, not bribery

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, with bottle, and wife Sherry Pierce, both of whom stand accused in a bribery scheme, leave U.S. District Court in Phoenix after their arraignment on June 7, 2017.

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, with bottle, and wife Sherry Pierce, both of whom stand accused in a bribery scheme, leave U.S. District Court in Phoenix after their arraignment on June 7, 2017.

Arizona’s most significant public corruption case since the 1988 impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham has come down to this: Four defendants. Fourteen days of testimony. Nearly four dozen witnesses.

And innumerable clues about an even grander investigation that could eclipse it.

The conclusion of the so-called “Ghost Lobby” trial was put in the hands of the jury on June 29.

At the trial’s heart were former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, his wife Sherry Pierce, lobbyist Jim Norton and water utility owner George Johnson.

The Pierces allegedly received $31,500 in bribes through a consulting firm under Norton’s direction. The money originated from Johnson and was allegedly paid in exchange for Gary Pierce’s “favorable and unlawful actions on matters before the ACC,” according to the indictment.

The defendants have been present for every second of testimony, punctuating the drama with bits of mundanity: Norton’s right arm in a sling after a mountain biking accident; the defense’s cache of patio cushions for friends and family who resign themselves to the court’s merciless wooden pews; Sherry Pierce trying to get someone, anyone, to take home leftover brownies.

There have been tearful moments and spurts of laughter and more than a few frustrated exchanges on the stand. And it’s all been encompassed in an almost tangible cloud of technical explanations about the Arizona Corporation Commission, the intricacies of the Internal Revenue Code and the borderline existential discussion of lobbyists’ role in this democracy.  

What got through to the jurors and what did not could hardly be less clear – they are unreadable.

Only their verdict will tell.

The scheme

According to the prosecution, the Pierces were in financial trouble when they agreed to participate in the bribery scheme that lined Johnson’s pockets at the expense of his Johnson Utilities customers.

Sherry Pierce

Sherry Pierce

Sherry Pierce was given a “no-show job” at a consultancy firm through which she received nine monthly payments of $3,500 between November 2011 and July 2012.

Johnson would pay the firm, KNB Consulting, $6,000 per month after being sent an invoice for consultancy services and expenses, and the firm’s sole operator, Kelly Norton, would pay Pierce her cut.

In return, allegedly, Gary Pierce voted to increase Johnson Utilities’ rates and to give the company’s owners the ability to pass their personal income tax liability on to customers.

The government has also alleged that Johnson was going to finance a land deal worth $350,000. But whether he was to play a role in that or not, the deal was not successful.

Kelly Norton revealed the alleged plot to federal investigators while they were gathering evidence on another matter, dubbed “Operation High Grid” in court documents.

Norton, the unindicted co-conspirator turned star witness for the government, testified her then-husband Jim Norton “bullied” her into hiring Sherry Pierce and doing her part to cover their tracks. She was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony, which left her ex-husband, the Pierces and Johnson to face charges of felony conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.

The defense

On May 30, the first day of the trial, the government revealed the defendants had been offered plea deals in exchange for their cooperation on the “High Grid” investigation.

But they rejected the deals, choosing instead to refute the government’s characterization of them and the events leading up to the indictment.

The defense said the government’s suggestion that the Pierces would throw away everything they had for $31,500 was an insult, a flimsy accusation at the center of a rushed investigation.

Kelly Norton

Kelly Norton

The defense has argued that Sherry Pierce’s work for KNB Consulting was legitimate, that she earned what she was paid and that she was a knowledgeable political operative.

If corruption did not fuel her actions, what brought this case to a federal courthouse? Vengeance.

While Kelly Norton was the star witness for the government, she was cast as a star villain by the defense, driven not by a desire to root out corrupt officials but to get revenge on her cheating ex-husband.

Her story was a “fabrication,” according to the defense, and she wasn’t alone in creating it.

The weaved web

After the defense rested its case, the government called just one rebuttal witness in a last effort to get something to stick in the jurors’ minds: Gayle Burns, the wife of Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns and “Mother figure” and friend to Kelly Norton.

Gayle Burns said she was neither a “techy” who could say precisely which records her husband turned up in response to a subpoena, nor “a person to judge about what’s right and what’s wrong.”

And she was perhaps not the slam-dunk the prosecutors needed to drive their case home.

Burns’ testimony was exemplary of the rest of the case: a mixed bag of statements that played in the defense’s hands and propped up Kelly Norton’s credibility.

Her testimony unequivocally supported Norton’s claims that she had raised concerns about the arrangement with Sherry Pierce from the beginning, and that she was confiding in Burns about the scheme as it unfolded.

But she also testified that she viewed the arrangement with Sherry Pierce as improper, but not necessarily illegal. She would have believed it was appropriate if only Johnson had hired her himself.

And she never told anyone – not the authorities, not her husband Bob Burns – about the alleged scheme while it was occurring. She did not raise the alarm even though Norton had been working on her husband’s 2012 Corporation Commission campaign at the same time she admitted participation in the alleged scheme.

“I did not know that it would rise to the point of being a crime,” Burns said.

But she also added no value to the defense’s argument that the case was driven by Kelly Norton’s thirst for revenge.

Burns acknowledged that Norton would confide in her when the Nortons were having marital issues, but she denied those problems persisted at the time of the scheme.

She testified that the Burnses were close with the Nortons even while the scheme was ongoing. And while they remain close with Kelly Norton, Burns said her relationship with Jim Norton has only changed because she hasn’t seen him much since the divorce.

She even went so far as to address Jim Norton directly when she struggled to remember whether he had been along for a trip to California.

“Sorry, Jim,” she said. “I can’t remember if you were ever there.”

She rejected the defense’s characterization of a “falling out” Bob Burns had with Gary Pierce, arguing it was simply a disagreement at the Corporation Commission, and she was not put off by Jim Norton’s decision to campaign against her husband in 2016.

“That’s just the way politics is,” she said.  

And the defense never did get to “show there is a bad investigation” beyond “Ghost Lobby.”

“That has to do with the lawsuit that we’re not supposed to be discussing,” Burns said, when she was asked about legal action her husband had taken against his fellow commissioners.

Bob Burns (Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services)

Bob Burns (Photo by Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services)

Jim Norton’s attorney, Ivan Mathew, has said the government was “investigating Company A” and “got together with someone who had an interest in it – that someone being Bob Burns – to “squeeze them.”

“Company A” is likely Arizona Public Service, from which Burns has sought the disclosure of charitable and campaign spending, particularly in regard to the 2014 election cycle, the same election cycle believed to be key to the “High Grid” investigation.

But just as U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi intended, details about “High Grid” have been scarce in this trial.

Bob Burns was ultimately not allowed to testify, leaving whatever he knows about “High Grid” out of Tuchi’s courtroom – for now anyway.  

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