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Ex-regulator in Arizona pleads not guilty in influence-peddling case

Former Arizona utility regulator Gary Pierce, center, and his wife Sherry, left, leave Federal Court after being arraigned on bribery and fraud charges, Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in Phoenix. Pierce was arraigned for a scheme in which he is accused of accepting payments from a water company owner in exchange for favorable treatment in a utility rate case. Other arraignments included the water company owner and a lobbyist accused of acting as a go-between in the scheme. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — A former elected Arizona utility regulator pleaded not guilty Wednesday to bribery and fraud charges accusing him of accepting thousands of dollars in payments from a water company owner in exchange for favorable treatment in a rate case.

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce entered the pleas during his first court appearance in the influence-peddling case. Water company owner George Johnson, lobbyist Jim Norton and Pierce’s wife Sherry also pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The four are scheduled for an Aug. 1 trial over what prosecutors say was a scheme from late 2011 through early 2013 to funnel $31,000 in monthly payments from Johnson to Gary and Sherry Pierce in exchange for securing approval for higher rates for Johnson Utilities. An indictment says Pierce voted for a 2011 proposal to let Johnson’s personal income taxes be covered by the utility’s customers.

Prosecutors say Pierce also was the intended recipient of a $350,000 property that was supposed to be paid for by Johnson, though it’s unknown if the real estate deal was in fact completed.

Outside the courthouse Wednesday, Gary and Sherry Pierce and Johnson declined to comment as they were swarmed by a gaggle of news reporters.

“I have a strong belief in the judicial system. I am looking forward to the full facts of this case coming out and clearing my reputation and my name,” Norton said, declining to answer questions from reporters.

Norton, who lobbied on behalf of Johnson, is accused of acting as a go-between between Gary Pierce and Johnson and aided in the real estate transaction.

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

Pierce served two terms on the Corporation Commission – which regulates electrical power utilities, telecommunications, securities and railroads – before leaving in early 2015 because of term limits.

Johnson is a wealthy developer with several projects in Arizona and owns a water company that supplies water and provides sewer service to thousands of homes in eastern Phoenix suburbs, many in his developments.

Sherry Pierce is currently employed as the deputy district director for U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican from Arizona whose office says Pierce is now on unpaid leave while the criminal case is pending.

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