The bribery trial that opened last week centering on the Arizona Corporation Commission was expected to be a blockbuster that pulled back the curtain on a scheme prosecutors say involved a utility owner seeking favors from the commission, a phony consultancy that made secret payments to the wife of a former commissioner and a co-conspirator who turned witness against her ex-husband.
But if last week was any measure, the trial fell flat and left more questions than it answered, even as prosecutors opened their case with a number of their star witnesses taking the stand inU. S. District Court Judge John Tuchi’s courtroom in Phoenix.
In the case, four defendants have been charged with felony conspiracy, bribery, mail fraud and five counts of wire fraud. Specifically, prosecutors claim that George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities in Pinal County. 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 former Commission Chairman Gary Pierce, who headed the commission Johnson sought favorable treatment from. The prosecution contends the payments were a bribe. But the defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
In opening their case last week, prosecutors wasted no time in rolling out their big guns, including Kelly Norton, an unindicted co-conspirator who cut a deal with prosecutors to testify against her alleged accomplices, including her ex-husband, Jim Norton.
In many ways, she had been viewed as one of the government’s most powerful witnesses who was expected to detail some of the most important aspects of the prosecution’s case. But questions hung over her testimony after she acknowledged in open court that the reason she was testifying was because she cut a deal with prosecutors to stay out of jail.
Norton’s admission that she was looking for immunity was all the more damaging to her credibility given the defense’s contention that she was motivated by revenge against her husband for a divorce just before Christmas 2015.
At one point on Friday, Norton reminisced about the lifestyle she and her husband once lived, being invited to parties and social events. “We were the power couple,” she said.
Ms. Norton produced dozens of records, including emails and cancelled checks that she claimed she kept in order to protect herself in case law enforcement discovers the scheme. But the documents themselves did not seem to overtly point to any clear misdeed. Neither did the timeline coincide with any favorable vote that Gary Pierce may have made in favor of Johnson Utilities.
Moreover, defense attorneys described Sherry Pierce as a genuine employee of K&N Consulting, a fact that seemed supported by one record that Norton produced: a 1099 filed with the government that showed Sherry Pierce was on the consultancy’s payroll with nothing to hide.
The trial is expected to continue on Tuesday with defense attorneys having an opportunity to cross examine Kelly Norton.
The proceedings also saw another key prosecution witness, Thomas Broderick, take the stand. Broderick has a $60,000 contract to consult with the government on the case, a fact that in and of itself may raise questions about his motivation. In the end, his testimony didn’t prove to be nearly as helpful to the prosecution as some had expected, given that he was a former director of the utility division of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
In fact, anyone with doubts about his credibility may well have been given yet more reason for doubt. At one point, he left an opening for defense attorneys with a glaring omission in the testimony he had given. Broderick failed to mention that he had spoken to another important prosecution witness about the case prior to the trial. That was former ACC Chairwoman Kris Mayes, who had testified early in the week. Broderick omitted the fact that he had talked about the case with her for 10 minutes while having coffee at her house.
“That was my error,” said Broderick, who never clearly explained how he made such a glaring omission.
Even with the fire power prosecutors sought to bring to bear on the case with Norton and Broderick, their case remains far from being open-and-shut. And, at times, it appeared thin. Defense attorneys sought to raise doubts about her credibility and the prosecution’s case overall.
At one point, the defense questioned why video had been put into evidence showing Pierce calling for a motion to approve or disapprove the rate hike for Johnson since Pierce was chairman and it was his job to lead by Robert’s Rules of Order. Under questioning, Broderick, who had helped to select the videos for the FBI, made a remarkable admission: that he was not familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order.
Defense lawyers seized on that admission, asking Broderick again about his knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order. Prosecutor Frank Galati objected to the repetition, stressing, “He said he doesn’t know Robert’s Rules of Order.”
Sustaining the objection, U. S. District Court Judge John Tuchi told the defense to move on with other questions. But the defense’s attempt to spotlight Broderick’s lack of knowledge of basic meeting protocols clearly caught the attention of the jury, some of who leaned forward with apparent interest in the exchange.
The trial is expected to last another three weeks and dozens of more witnesses are expected to testify in the case.