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KNAU and Arizona News

Mistrial Declared For Ex-Regulator Charged With Bribery

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(AP Photo/Matt York, File) Matt York AP
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The influence-peddling trial of former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce ended Tuesday in a mistrial after jurors deadlocked on charges that he accepted $31,000 in bribes from a water company owner in exchange for favorable regulatory decisions.

The mistrial declared by U.S. District Judge John Tuchi came after about 18 hours of deliberations over four days. A mistrial also was declared for Pierce's wife, Sherry, water company owner George Johnson and lobbyist Jim Norton.

Pierce was stoic when the judge announced the decision to end the trial. Prosecutors have until mid-August to decide whether to retry Pierce and the three other people charged in the case. All four have vigorously disputed they participated in an influence-buying scheme and had pleaded not guilty to bribery, conspiracy and fraud charges.

Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the mistrial and whether the case will be retried.

Prosecutors said the bribe money was funneled to Pierce by Johnson and that Pierce tried to get the water company owner to buy him land worth at least $300,000.

In exchange, they say Pierce voted for a rate increase that benefited Johnson's company and approved a measure that lets Johnson use ratepayer money to pay his personal income tax bill.

The bribe money was paid to Sherry Pierce, who was hired by the consulting firm, and deposited into a bank account held by her and her husband, authorities say.

Sherry Pierce insisted she was paid for doing legitimate political work.

Norton, who lobbied on Johnson's behalf, was accused of facilitating the bribery scheme and acting as a go-between for Gary Pierce and Johnson and aiding in the real estate transaction.

Authorities say money for the purchase of land in Mesa was to be provided by Johnson, but the deal was never completed.

"If the government decides that they want to retry the case we will be ready," said Ashley Adams, attorney for Sherry Pierce. "I hope they consider dropping the charges against Sherry Pierce. I think the evidence was overwhelming that she was innocent."

Patricia Gitre, an attorney representing Gary Pierce, declined comment on the mistrial. Woodrow Thompson, a lawyer for Johnson, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

The government's key witness was Norton's ex-wife, Kelly Norton, who owned the consulting firm that made the payments to Sherry Pierce. Kelly Norton, who is now divorced from the lobbyist, has acknowledged her role in the bribery scheme and was granted immunity.

"Mr. Norton is appreciative of all the work the jury did in their ability to see the holes in the government's case," said Ivan Mathew, an attorney for Jim Norton.

Pierce served eight years as corporation commissioner and left in early 2015 because of term limits.

Authorities say the bribery allegations were discovered during a larger, unrelated federal investigation, though prosecutors have declined to reveal its focus.

Pierce has acknowledged he was questioned by FBI agents investigating the 2014 commission election.

Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of electric utility Arizona Public Service Co., was widely believed to have spent $3.2 million backing Republicans for the utility commission.

Pinnacle West Capital disclosed in public filings in August 2016 that it received federal grand jury subpoenas seeking information on elections involving the commission and secretary of state.

The FBI said it was conducting a long-term investigation related to the financing of certain statewide elections in 2014, but it has not named APS.