It was Tuesday, May 16, 2017, a normal day in the household of Sherry and Gary Pierce, a former commissioner with the Arizona Corporation Commission, an agency that regulates utilities in the state. It was 7:15 a.m., and Sherry was preparing to leave for work. But their lives would change forever with a knock on the door.
FBI agents had shown up at their home that morning with startling news: the U. S. Government intended to indict them as part of what prosecutors contend was a pay-to-pay scheme to help a major utility in exchange for bribes.
“I don’t think I said anything because I was pretty much in shock,” Sherry Pierce recalled on the witness stand on Friday in a trial playing out in the courtroom of U. S. District Court Judge John Tuchi in Phoenix. “I still had to go to work (and) trying to figure out what the heck they were talking about.”
Her words then became inaudible as she wept uncontrollably, leading prosecutors to ask Judge Tuchi to break for lunch. It was perhaps the most dramatic moment so far in the bribery and corruption case involving the Arizona Corporation Commission. With the trial going into its third week, defense lawyers told Judge Tuchi that they intend to end testimonies by Friday and prepare for jury instructions.
Sherry Pierce is among a parade of dozens of witnesses who have testified in the case so far. In addition to Sherry and Gary Pierce, there are two other defendants: George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities in Pinal County; and Jim Norton, a lobbyist. The defendants are charged with bribery, fraud and conspiracy.
Specifically, prosecutors contend that Johnson, in looking for a rate increase and a tax break from the commission, retained Jim Norton, who, in turn, had his wife Kelly Norton establish a consulting firm. The firm received $6,000 a month from Johnson over a nine-month period that began in August 2011, according to the prosecution. Prosecutors further contend that Kelly Norton then paid $3,500 a month to Sherry Pierce, the wife of Gary Pierce, who headed the commission Johnson sought favorable treatment from. The prosecution contends the payments were a bribe.
The case itself had been billed as a blockbuster, one that prosecutors had in large part built around key witnesses like Kelly Norton, an unindicted co-conspirator who acknowledged on the stand that she agreed to testify against the others, including her ex-husband, under immunity in order to avoid prison. But the trial has exposed several important weaknesses in the prosecution’s case.
In her testimony, Kelly Norton claimed Shelly Pierce had little qualification and did little for the $3,500 monthly payments. But jurors reviewed a number of reports and documents that Sherry Pierce testified represented legitimate work that she did for Kelly Norton’s consultancy. In her testimony, Sherry Pierce also noted that she had participated in numerous meetings and events as part of her job for the consultancy.
In addition, defense attorneys last week showed the jury several emails that Norton had failed to turn over to prosecutors indicating that Sherry Pierce was an active employee of Kelly Norton’s consulting firm. The move underscored the defense strategy: to show that Sherry Pierce actually performed legitimate work for the consultancy, even as prosecutors claim that Sherry Pierce effectively had a no-show job as part of the pay-to-play scheme the government claims took place.
In one of the email that defense attorneys presented in the case, Kelly Norton appears to give Sherry Pierce a to-do list as part of Pierce’s job. In the email, Kelly Norton says: “I need your help” getting the names of donors. Yet another email contained a list of Democratic clubs that Pierce compiled on behalf of Kelly Norton and then sent to her boss.
Pierce’s testimony, along with the previously undisclosed emails, is potentially damaging to Kelly Norton herself, particularly since Norton’s immunity was based largely on her agreement to provide full and truthful testimony in the case. It is unclear why she failed to produce to prosecutors emails that might prove to be exculpatory to the defense.
Defense lawyers also argued that Shelly Pierce did indeed have qualifications to work at Kelly Norton’s consultancy, contrary to Kelly Norton’s contention. For example, Sherry Pierce had worked for two members of the U. S. Congress: Representative Andy Biggs, a Republican, and Representative Matt Salmon, who is now retired. Salmon testified on Pierce’s behalf, saying he hired her because of her ability to “get it done.”
With strong testimony and the production of evidence as proof that Pierce worked for the payments, prosecutors tried to revert to a 2018 state law by which they could possibly argue that, legally, Pierce should not have been paid in the first place because of the type of political work she was doing. The Judge refused to allow the argument.
Also, on Friday Judge Tuchi allowed defense testimony concerning the Pierces’ credit score. Prosecutors had moved to block an Equifax document obtained by the FBI. While Tuchi did not allow the jury to see the report itself, he allowed testimony from Sherry Pierce, saying their credit has never gone below 760, a score considered very good or excellent on credit scales. By that testimony, defense lawyers hoped to refute prosecution contention that the Pierces were having financial problems.
In the week ahead, defense lawyers are expected to wrap up their case. Jury instructions and deliberations will be next. On Friday, Judge Tuchi strongly reminded both sides that the week of July 4 will sunset at least two jurors who let the court know they are not able to serve that week. He warned that there are only two alternate jurors left.