The lobbyist at the center of a bribery indictment says he’s not guilty of anything, with his attorney suggesting there’s a hidden motive behind the allegations.
In a prepared statement, Jim Norton said he is innocent of the eight charges and is “confident these allegations will be shown to be without merit.”
Attorney Ivan Mathew went a step further, raising questions about the identity of the “unindicted co-conspirator” who apparently gave prosecutors information linking Norton, former utility regulator Gary Pierce, Pierce’s wife, Sherry, and George H. Johnson, the manager of Johnson Utilities.
“The motivation behind these allegations will become transparent when the identity of the ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ is revealed,” Mathew said in his own prepared statement. A spokesman for both Norton and Mathew said they would provide no further information or explanations behind Norton’s activities outlined in the indictment.
Separately, the attorney for Pierce and his wife said the indictment should be seen for what it is: simply the government using the facts it wants to tell what it thinks happened.
“I have seen the indictment and have had access to some other information that the government possesses,’’ said attorney Tom Henze. “What I see is a picture that has two sides.’’
He said the couple will tell their side of the story — but not now. “The time or the place is not in the media,’’ Henze said.
Henze said he, too, thinks that the identity of the unindicted co-conspirator, when that is unmasked, will help the public better understand what’s behind the charges.
“I think it’s obvious,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, Democrat gubernatorial hopeful David Garcia is hoping to score points by demanding incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey disclose all ties he has had with Norton as well as Johnson who, aside from owning a water and sewer company, also is a developer.
Records show that Norton has given Ducey $9,000 for both his initial gubernatorial run in 2014 as well as helping finance his 2018 reelection campaign.
“He’s known Jim since college,” said Ducey press aide Daniel Scarpinato. But Scarpinato said there is no real ongoing relationship between the governor and the lobbyist.
“In terms of currently, the governor’s really an outsider to the Capitol and to politics,” he said. “He doesn’t really spend time with lobbyists, inside or outside of the Capitol.”
And Scarpinato said Ducey “typically doesn’t take meetings with lobbyists,” saying he leaves those to his staff. Scarpinato said he does not know if or when Ducey and Norton have chatted. “But it doesn’t appear they’ve formally met in the office,” he said.
Scarpinato said he is not aware of any contacts or meetings between the governor and Johnson.
An effort by Johnson to get higher rates, according to the indictment, led to the actions that resulted in bribery charges. That starts with a 2010 decision by the five-member ACC to deny a request by Johnson Utilities for a rate hike. Part of the request included Johnson passing on to customers the taxes he has to pay from the income he received from the company.
A year later, though, Pierce, along with two other commissioners, voted to increase the value of the company, a move that allowed it to collect more from customers. One commissioner abstained; the other said there was a “lack of new evidence or information” to overturn the earlier ruling.
Then in 2012 Pierce wrote a draft policy allowing the owners of companies like Johnson Utilities to recovery personal income taxes through rates. That change was approved in 2013.
The indictment says that beginning in 2011 Johnson, working with Norton, provided $31,500 to Pierce and his wife in exchange for “favorable and unlawful official actions on matters before the Arizona Corporation Commission.”
One piece of information missing from the indictment is the identity of that “unindicted co-conspirator.” According to the legal papers, it was that person, acting under the direction of Johnson and Norton, who had Sherry Pierce submit monthly invoices for approximately $3,500 for what the indictment calls “simple tasks.”
The money’s source was Johnson, funneled through the consulting firm of the unindicted co-conspirator to Sherry Pierce, the indictment says.