Kelly Norton, a key witness for the government in a bribery trial involving the Arizona Corporation Commission, testified on Wednesday that she agreed to cooperate with the FBI’s investigation of the case in order to stay out of prison.
Her testimony came on day four of the bribery trial of former Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) Chairman Gary Pierce. In addition to Pierce, there are three other defendants in the case. They are George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities in Pinal County; Sherry Pierce, the wife of Gary Pierce; and Jim Norton, a lobbyist and former husband of Kelly Norton.
The defendants are charged with bribery, fraud and conspiracy in an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving what prosecutors say was Johnson Utility’s efforts to gain favorable treatment from the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Specifically, prosecutors contend that George 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. 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.
Kelly Norton, who is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, testified on Wednesday that after talking to friends and retaining a lawyer, she agreed in March 2017 to testify against her ex-husband with the promise from the FBI that she would receive immunity as long as she told the truth. “The term is that I would not go to jail,” she said.
In opening arguments, defense attorneys argued that she had another motive in testifying against her ex-husband: that she invented the story about her ex-husband’s alleged misdeeds as revenge for their divorce just before Christmas 2015.
In her testimony, Norton claimed her ex-husband, Jim Norton urged her to start a company, KNB Consulting, and then forced her to seek contracts in order to make her company “seem more legit,” though it remained unclear how exactly she was coerced into doing so.
In keeping with their contention that Kelly Norton was bent of revenge, defense attorneys argued in their opening statements that Sherry Pierce was, in fact, an actual employee of Kelley Norton’s firm and that the salary she was paid was not a bribe to sway her husband, former Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce
More than that, defense attorneys sought to punch other holes in the case brought by prosecutors, arguing that the timeline of the alleged pay-to-play scheme that prosecutors presented did not coincide with any vote Gary Pierce cast that might have benefited Johnson Utility.
Kelly Norton is expected to testify Thursday as the prosecution said they were only a third of the way through their direct questioning of Norton. Then the defense will have an opportunity to question her in what will likely be an effort to further chip away at her credibility. This is the strategy the defense has signaled it will use against prosecution witnesses whose stories don’t add up.
The only other prosecution witness to testify on Wednesday was Thomas Broderick, with defense lawyers grilling him during the proceedings, particularly about a glaring omission from earlier testimony that he tried to shrug off. Broderick has a $60,000 consultancy contract with the federal government.
Defense attorneys focused on his failure to reveal that he had discussed the case with more than just the four people he’d originally disclosed to the prosecution. He testified that he simply forgot to mention the breakfast meeting he had had with former ACC Chairwoman Kris Mayes, an earlier witness with whom he also discussed the case.
“What triggered your recollection of your meeting with Kris Mayes,” pressed Ivan Matthew, the attorney for defendant Jim Norton.
“They revealed it to me,” Broderick said, referring to prosecutors. “And I said, ‘Oops’.”
Under cross examination, Broderick, a former director of the utility division of the Arizona Corporation Commission, sometimes appeared to frown or lean forward squinting. He once appeared to do stress-relieving neck cracks during a sidebar.
There were a few light moments on Wednesday. When the attorneys announced that they would not be calling two of their witnesses, Judge Tuchi announced wryly, “With the deletion of two witnesses, the combined slate of witnesses is now down to 80.”
Laughter erupted in the courtroom.
The marathon case could go on another three weeks.