The bribery trial involving the Arizona Corporation Commission continued on Thursday with Kelly Norton, an accomplice in the alleged scheme who became a prosecution witness, testifying about records she kept stemming from the crime that she and prosecutors claims took place.
“I wanted to keep copies of everything just in case,” she testified, “because I was worried about getting in trouble.”
The testimony by Norton, an unindicted co-conspirator, came on day five 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: 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.
Prosecutors specifically 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 a day earlier said in court she cut a deal with prosecutors because she “didn’t want to go to jail,” testified that she kept an assortment of records in case law-enforcement authorities ever asked questions about the alleged pay-to-play conspiracy.
The records included emails, copies of checks from Johnson, the water utility owner, along with other documents she turned over to prosecutors. The emails Kelly Norton produced included a number between her and Sherry Pierce. In some cases, the emails referred to George Johnson, the utility owner, only as a “client.” Kelly Norton claimed that she had been directed to keep his identity secret, though the fact is that not all the emails referred to Johnson simply as a client.
In keeping with her story that she was a reluctant conspirator in the pay-to-play plot, Norton testified that her firm attempted to conduct business in an appropriate manner, including by issuing a 1099 tax form to Sherry Pierce.
In her testimony a day earlier, Kelly Norton claimed that 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.”
Defense attorneys, for their part, argued in opening statements that her motivations for testifying against her ex-husband were rooted in her desire for revenge over the couple’s divorce in 2015 just before the Christmas holidays.
The defense has also pointed to another fact that seems to chip away at Kelly Norton’s account that she and the four defendants were engaged in a furtive conspiracy to influence Gary Pierce, the former Arizona Corporation Commission chairman, with bribes: the Pierces documented Sherry Pierce’s income from Kelly Norton’s consultancy on their personal income taxes.
That is in keeping with the defense’s contention that Sherry Pierce did actual work for Kelly Norton’s firm, as opposed to collecting what prosecutors contend were bribes to influence her husband’s votes on the Arizona Corporation Commission.
In addition, the defense has contended that arguing that the timeline presented by prosecutors of the alleged pay-to-play scheme did not in any way coincide with votes Gary Pierce cast that might have benefited Johnson Utility.
In an effort to substantiate her story that the conspirators endeavored to keep the scheme secret, Kelly Norton claimed she that never received the appropriate tax documentation from Johnson as part of the business arrangement she claimed was contrived.
“If I didn’t get a 1099, nobody would know that I got the money,” she said.
The trial is scheduled to resume next week, when defense attorneys are expected to cross-examine Kelly in a case that may go on another three weeks with dozens of witnesses set to testify in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi in Phoenix.