For six years, John LeSeuer served as policy advisor to Arizona Corporation Commissioner (ACC) Gary Pierce, who is now being tried for bribery along with three other defendants. Testifying in the case recently, LeSeuer indicated that he probably knew more about the role Pierce played on the Arizona Corporation Commission than anyone.
And yet, LeSeuer was not interviewed by government law-enforcement officials in their investigation leading to the indictment of Pierce and the three others. This apparent omission by prosecutors – and other such omissions in the prosecution’s case – is just one that the jury will likely have to consider as it begins its deliberations in the coming days.
LeSeuer himself noted the oddness of the situation in a LinkedIn posting. “Here’s something that puzzled me though,” he wrote. “Neither the FBI nor the DOJ sought to interview me or try to truth-check any of the allegations against information that I might have or be able to provide to them. They didn’t ask to talk to me before the indictment came out, and they haven’t asked to talk to me after it came out. Chew on that. I just don’t understand it.”
Three weeks after the trial began, the jury was set to hear final arguments on Thursday from defense lawyers who contend the prosecution’s case is weak and, more than that, a travesty of justice in which the U. S. Government attempted to keep the jury from hearing potentially exculpatory facts, evidence and even potential witnesses. On the other hand, the jurors must also consider a prosecution that has persisted with the case despite conceding to its own shortcomings.
In addition to Pierce, the defendants are George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities in Pinal County; 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. 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.
During testimony earlier this week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Battista seemed to concede there may have been some mistakes in the investigation as the government worked under the pressure of an approaching statue-of-limitations for the case. That apparent concession came after Jim Norton’s attorney, Ivan Mathew, questioned Dan Saban, the Buckeye, Arizona police chief hired as a private investigator by Norton.
Saban alleged the grand jury that handed down the indictments in the case weren’t given all the information. For example, Saban says it was easy to find information regarding Sherry Pierce’s employment, even by simply looking on her Facebook page where she had noted she had started a new job working for Congressman Matt Salmon and Rep. Andy Biggs, both of whom praised her work during court testimony.
In addition, the jury itself flipped through pages and pages of documents and reports as evidence of Sherry Pierce’s work for Norton’s firm. There were also emailed work assignments presented by the defense that were either disregarded or considered unimportant by the FBI.
Appearing to concede that any law enforcer can make mistakes, Batista asked Saban whether he’d ever made mistakes in investigations. “I’ve made some honest mistakes in my career,” said Saban. The defense rested following Saban’s testimony.
But not before they hammered away at other omissions and inconsistencies in the case.
Implying that the investigation was sloppy, Saban said some of the information was not followed up on and not fully investigated. For example, LeSeuer had testified that the tax policy and rate issue had not started with Johnson Utility in 2011 but years before. “As an investigator I would have immediately contacted LeSeuer,” Saban said.
Mathew continued to hammer at the testimony of Jim Norton’s ex-wife, Kelly Norton, said to have been angry over their divorce when she turned state’s witness and FBI informant. Still, the prosecution worked to re-establish the claims of Kelly Norton through Gayle Burns, wife of Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns, also a close friend and confidant of Kelly Norton.
According to Burns’ testimony on Tuesday, Kelly had told her that Pierce was getting paid for doing nothing. Burns said Kelly Norton confided in her that the deal of hiring Sherry Pierce didn’t feel right. But, questioned intently by StevenCheifetz, also Jim Norton’s attorney, Burns back tracked on having used the term “go-between” when discussing the roll of Norton’s firm with the FBI.
“I may not have expressed it right when I was answering these questions,” she said.
Also, Burns appeared to become frustrated and anxious at times. She struggled to remember portions of her conversations with Norton verbally, through emails and her FBI interview. Her memory was repeatedly refreshed with documents.
At one point, Burns flip-flopped on statements she’d made to federal investigators. Shown a transcript of her FBI interview, she had told them that the scheme had been to funnel “dark money” to the Pierces. In trial testimony, she apparently changed the story: “I never meant to say that any dark money was going to Gary and Sherry Pierce,” she said Tuesday. “I was told this was set up because the Pierces needed money.”
Burns also testified that, in her opinion, the arrangement between Norton, Johnson and Pierce would have been fine if Pierce had been employed directly by Johnson instead of by Norton. And she said she had no personal knowledge about the case, aside from what Norton told her.
During the trial, there was much debate over the credibility of the case. At one point U. S. District Court Judge John Tuchi denied a defense motion to throw the case out of court for lack of evidence. The chief FBI investigator, Marilyn Shefveland, has sat in court the entire time. But the defense ultimately decided not to call her.
With the defense and the prosecution ending testimony, the jury was set to receive instructions and hear closing arguments Thursday. With only one alternate juror left, they will go into deliberations and revisit more than 150 hours of testimony