Jim Norton, who is accused of helping orchestrate a “pay-to-play” bribery scheme involving former Arizona Corporation Commission, has finally had his day before the jury, giving deeply personal testimony that appeared to allow jurors to see beyond previous testimony that painted him as a hardened manipulator.
Norton’s testimony this week followed a parade of prosecution witnesses who testified against him. They included his ex-wife, Kelly Norton, the alleged co-conspirator turned government witness who testified against the four defendants in the case admittedly by keeping herself out of jail.
But the highly anticipated trial, widely played out in the media for months, has appeared to nearly fizzle during testimony as defense lawyers brought dozens of witnesses before the jury this week, including Norton himself. Many presented surprise testimony that has made it clear the government’s case is far from open and shut.
In a nutshell, the defendants are George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities in Pinal County; Gary Pierce, a former Arizona Corporation Commissioner; Sherry Pierce, the wife of Gary Pierce; and Jim Norton, a lobbyist. 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 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, K&B consulting. 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.
“It was real work,” Jim Norton said, responding to assertions by Kelly Norton that he made her pretend her company was “legit.” He said on the stand that “legit” is not even a word he uses.
Among the most glaring revelations in the case has been Kelly Norton’s failure to hand over key documents to the FBI – emails and memos – illustrating months of work that was done for the money that the prosecution contends was a bribe. But, yet another major omission was highlighted during Jim Norton’s testimony this week – that Kelly Norton apparently single-handedly decided to hide income from the IRS.
In earlier testimony, Kelly Norton confessed that she omitted reporting the $6,000 a month for nine months – that she was paid from San Tan Valley utility company owner George Johnson for political consulting work from K&B. But in new testimony this week, it was revealed that she apparently made that decision single-handedly. This is despite her repeated testimony that Jim Norton constantly forced her to remain a part of the alleged bribery scheme.
David Frome, a certified public accountant who handled the taxes for the Nortons, testified repeatedly that – as in past years – he exclusively dealt with Kelly Norton for the tax filings, receiving all information from her.
Jim Norton testified that he learned from his attorney only “six to eight weeks” ago that she had not reported the money, which he contends was for legitimate work.
“My level of involvement in all of that was virtually nil,” Jim Norton told defense lawyer Steven Cheifetz when asked whether he had directed Kelly Norton to withhold reports of the payments from the IRS. Norton described his ex-wife as a “strong-willed and competent individual” who handled all of the bills, the accounting and the taxes.
“There was no cover up,” Norton said. “There’s nothing in my view that would even suggest that.”
Jim Norton spent most of the day on the witness stand Tuesday under questioning from Cheifetz. Appearing relaxed in a suit and tie, he wore a sling on his arm due to a mountain bike accident, a bit of testimony that drew a few smiles from the jury as he took the stand.
He described his life as a lobbyist and how lobbyists operate to persuade politicians on various issues, including having meals with them, making phone calls and even establishing friendships.
Jim Norton said he spends “pretty much every waking hour” on his lobbying of government officials. “It’s just a human interaction business. There’s no other way around it,” he said. “That’s the business I’m in.”
FBI testimony in the case revealed more than 400 phone calls and hundreds of additional text messages between Norton and Gary Pierce, but they had no recordings or knowledge of the nature of the calls. FBI said they were not able to say how many of the calls went to voicemail. Among thousands of calls to other politicians, Norton was blatant that he spoke to Pierce “constantly” in his role of ACC commissioner.
Asked why he spoke so often to Pierce, he said, “I couldn’t tell what any one of them (the calls) were. Including with my own wife and family.”
Under questioning from defense lawyer Ashley Adams, Norton also addressed what Adams described as “the elephant in the room,” bringing his marital issues front and center before the jury. Kelly Norton had tearfully testified that he had engaged in multiple affairs that she said led to their divorce – widely believed to be her motive for testifying against him.
Jim Norton admitted to two affairs but said the divorce had little or nothing to do with them. Under questing from his lawyer, Ivan Mathew, he said the marital issues were more about him and Kelly growing apart as a couple; “issues of intimacy or the lack thereof – emotional, physical, intellectual.” He also added issues that arise from “co-parenting” and disagreements about how to raise a child. He said they had been separated for about six months during the marriage.
He said they pursued marital counseling and added that he also pursued personal counseling, “coaching and therapy,” he said. “I’m a strong advocate of that.”
“Did you make mistakes as a husband,” Matthew asked.
“I absolutely did,” Norton answered.
“Do you think your career as a lobbyist contributed to the failure of your marriage?”
Norton said, “Without a doubt. It’s hard during legislative session,” working for numerous hours a week then “go home afterward and really feel connected. It can be grueling. And I was a victim of my own success.”
Norton said he “lost my business” behind all of the negative headlines and reports of the alleged scandal. But he recalled the divorce settlement as having been fair.
“We were married for 25 years and I have always believed that we built everything together,” he said, recalling a 50-50 settlement. “That’s what she was deserving of.”
Following Norton’s testimony, several business associates took the stand testifying about his respectability as a lobbyist across the state.
Testimony was expected to end this week and both sides will then debate jury instructions. Closing arguments and a verdict are set for next week