- Associated Press - Thursday, June 28, 2018

PHOENIX (AP) - A prosecutor said at the close of an influence-peddling trial that a former elected utility regulator breached his duty to serve the public by accepting $31,000 in bribes from a water company owner in exchange for favorable regulatory decisions.

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce is accused of having the money funneled to him through a political consulting firm that employed Pierce’s wife. Authorities say Pierce also tried to get the company owner to buy him a piece of land in Mesa worth $300,000 or more.

Gary Pierce performed services for someone he regulated,” prosecutor Frederick Battista told jurors during closing arguments Thursday at Pierce’s trial.

In turn, the prosecutor said Pierce voted for a rate increase that benefited the water company and approved a measure that lets the firm’s owner use ratepayer money to pay his personal income tax bill.

Authorities say water company owner George Johnson made the payments to his lobbyist, Jim Norton, who gave the money to a political consulting firm that employed Pierce’s wife, Sherry. The $31,000 was deposited into a bank account held by the Pierces.

Pierce’s wife maintains the money was payment for legitimate political services that she performed.

Pierce, his wife, Johnson and Norton have vigorously disputed they were participating in an influence-buying scheme and have pleaded not guilty to bribery and other charges.

While the prosecutor was making closing arguments, Pierce frequently looked downward as he scratched out notes on a legal pad.

Patricia Gitre, attorney for Gary Pierce, told jurors that prosecutors didn’t prove her client took anything in exchange for his votes. Gitre also said the only person who suggested that Johnson was going to pay for the land purchase was Norton’s ex-wife.

“We have nothing from Mr. Johnson indicating that he is interested,” Gitre said.

Attorney Ashley Adams, who represents Sherry Pierce, said her client earned the money for performing legitimate political work and scoffed at the notion that she would throw her good name for $31,000. “To say she is part of a bribery scheme is nothing short of absurd,” Adams said.

Norton, who lobbied on Johnson’s behalf, is accused of acting as a go-between for Pierce and Johnson and aiding in the real estate transaction.

Ivan Mathew, an attorney for Jim Norton, noted that his client’s name didn’t appear on a letter of intent for the land purchase and said the document was sent to him while he was on vacation. “When he came back from vacation, he told Gary Pierce he wasn’t interested,” Mathew said.

Authorities say money for the purchase of the property in Mesa was to be provided by Johnson, but the deal was never completed.

The government’s key witness was Norton’s then-wife, Kelly Norton, who has acknowledged her role in the bribery scheme and was granted immunity. She owned the firm that made the payments to Sherry Pierce.

Unsure of Sherry Pierce’s qualifications, Kelly Norton objected to hiring the regulator’s wife, but was told to do so by Jim Norton, Battista said.

Jim Norton’s attorney has suggested that Kelly Norton, who has since divorced the lobbyist, may have been acting vengefully when she cooperated with federal authorities.

Authorities say Gary Pierce told Jim Norton in a December 2011 email that he would advise a real estate agent to take Pierce’s name off a letter on the intent to purchase the property and instead leave the lobbyist’s name on the document.

Woodrow Thompson, an attorney for Johnson, said there was no bribe and that his client had no part in the land purchase explored by Pierce.

Thompson questioned the timeline of the alleged conspiracy presented by prosecutors, saying Pierce had an interest in the income tax proposal years before it was passed. “You can see the timeline doesn’t add up,” Thompson said.

Pierce served eight years as corporation commissioner and left in early 2015 because of term limits.

Authorities say the bribery allegations were discovered during a larger unrelated federal investigation. Pierce has acknowledged he was questioned by FBI agents investigating the 2014 commission election.

Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of electric utility Arizona Public Service Co., was widely believed to have spent $3.2 million backing Republicans for the utility commission.

Pinnacle West Capital disclosed in public filings in August 2016 that it received federal grand jury subpoenas seeking information on elections involving the commission and secretary of state.

The FBI said it was conducting a long-term investigation related to the financing of certain statewide elections in 2014, but it has not named APS.


Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://bit.ly/2GGWEPO.

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