Arizona Democrats pounce on bribery case against ex-official

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (AP) -

A bribery and fraud case that federal prosecutors brought this week against a former Republican statewide elected official and three others gave Arizona Democrats a new line of attack Friday ahead of the midterm elections.

Former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce, his wife, a prominent lobbyist and well-known developer and utility owner were charged in the influence-peddling case. Prosecutors say the developer funneled tens of thousands of dollars through the lobbyist to Pierce and his wife in exchange for favorable treatment in a rate case being decided by the commission.

[RELATED: Ex-AZ Corp. Commissioner, owner of Johnson Utilities indicted on bribery charges]

Democrats pounced on the indictment and sought to tie the case to Gov. Doug Ducey, who is running for a second term next year. The Republican governor received several thousand dollars in campaign donations from the developer and is a longtime friend with the lobbyist, Jim Norton.

Norton is also a partner in a lobbying firm best known for its ties to the billionaire conservatives Charles and David Koch. The firm's founder, Sean Noble, has played an active role in various dark money campaigns this decade, including helping Ducey get elected in 2014. Noble also helped distribute millions of dollars from the Koch network in 2012, most notably on behalf of Mitt Romney during his failed presidential bid.

[RELATED: Former Arizona utility regulator indicted on bribery charges]

David Garcia, a Democrat running for governor next year, called on Ducey to reveal all communications his office had between Norton and the developer to ensure the public has a full understanding of his involvement with the people who were indicted. Garcia's campaign manager, Bill Scheel, said Norton's indictment looks especially bad for the governor given his close ties to the firm.

"This was the go-to lobbying and political firm," Scheel said. "It was basically Ducey's operation, and now they're in the middle of a corruption scandal, and we just don't have any idea how much deeper it goes."

Ducey's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Norton strenuously denied the allegations and proclaimed his innocence.

"I am innocent and will be entering a plea of 'not guilty.' I look forward to my day in court, when I am confident these allegations will be shown to be without merit," he said.

The indictment said Gary Pierce voted in 2011 to let Johnson's water company request that George Johnson's personal income taxes be covered by the utility's customers in Pinal County if regulators were to allow such a practice in the future. Pierce also is accused of taking bribes to push a rate increase through the commission that would be beneficial to Johnson Utilities.

The indictment said Johnson paid the owner of a consulting firm, whose name hasn't been publicly revealed, to funnel monthly payments to Pierce and his wife. Sherry Pierce worked for the consulting firm.

Norton is accused of acting as a go-between between Pierce and Johnson and aided in the real estate transaction.

The indictment said the money for the real estate deal was to be provided by Johnson. It's unclear if the real estate deal was completed.

Calls left for Gary Pierce and Tom Irvine, an attorney who represents Johnson, weren't immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Pierce is a former legislator who served eight years in a statewide elected office during his two terms as corporation commissioner. His wife is currently a deputy district director for GOP Rep. Andy Biggs.

A message left for Sherry Pierce on Friday afternoon at Biggs' office in Mesa wasn't immediately returned.

Daniel Stefanski, a spokesman for Biggs, declined to comment on the indictment and didn't provide any details on the current job status of Sherry Pierce.

Norton, a registered lobbyist in Arizona since 1997, has represented more than 20 clients over the years at his current and past firms.

Lobbyist registration records show Norton has only one current client - the operators of a horse racing track in Phoenix. He had represented Johnson International, a company owned by Johnson, for a two-year period ending in April 2006.

Other clients previously represented by Norton include the Arizona Association of Industries, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Raytheon Company, the Council of Independent Tobacco Manufacturers of America and El Paso Electric Company.

George Johnson has made nearly $53,000 in political contributions to candidates for state offices and other political causes since 2005, according to state campaign finance records.

His contributions include $24,000 given to a political committee for then-Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in 2013 and 2014, $4,000 to Doug Ducey's gubernatorial campaign in 2013 and 2014, $7,500 to the Maricopa County Democratic Party in 2011 and $2,100 to a campaign in 2016 that opposed a marijuana legalization proposal.

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