Former Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce and Johnson Utilities owner George Johnson were indicted on charges of bribery and conspiracy. Corrections: The name of Rep. Andy Biggs was misspelled in an earlier version of this video.
A U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix on Tuesday ordered federal prosecutors to disclose evidence to four defendants in an alleged scheme to bribe an Arizona corporation commissioner, but put it under a protective order to avoid “a feeding frenzy among the press.”
Former Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce, his wife, Sherry, lobbyist Jim Norton and land developer and utility owner George Johnson were indicted in May, charged with bribery, fraud and conspiracy.
According to the indictment, federal investigators believe Pierce convinced other commissioners to approve higher wastewater rates for Johnson Utilities in the East Valley and Pinal County in exchange for $31,500, which the company allegedly funneled to Pierce’s wife, Sherry, over 10 months in 2011 and 2012.
Norton, according to the indictment, acted as a conduit between Johnson and Gary Pierce. The indictment further alleges Pierce planned to buy a $350,000 land parcel with funds provided by Johnson. The indictment does not state whether that transaction took place, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office would neither confirm nor deny.
A fifth conspirator is mentioned in the indictment but has not been named or indicted.
In July, court documents revealed that prosecutors and defense attorneys were quibbling over “discovery” — that is, evidence to be turned over to the defendants by the government — that suggested the bribery investigation was tied to a larger but unidentified FBI investigation.
The suggestion of the larger investigation triggered speculation in the media, and apparently kept the discovery process shut down until it could be argued before a judge.
At a hearing Tuesday, attorneys for the defendants complained that thousands of pages of documents and numerous recorded interviews, including with the defendants themselves, still needed to be turned over.
“What we don’t know is what’s confidential about those documents,” said Ashley Adams, who represents Sherry Pierce.
Gary Pierce’s attorney, Patricia Gitre, told Judge John Tuchi, “I think the government is making assumptions that we are going to release this to the media.”
“I don’t practice law that way,” she said.
Not even the checks and invoices for the alleged bribery payments have been released, the defense attorneys claimed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Battista countered that all information would be available to the defense teams, but that the protective order would extend to anyone outside of those circles.
This was especially necessary, he said, in the wake of an article in July by Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts, who pondered whether the scandal surrounding the Corporation Commission was going to spread.
Battista said that revealing information “sets off a feeding frenzy among the press.”
He said potential investigative sources would say, “I don’t want to cooperate with the government because I don’t want my name in the press.”
Further scrutiny of the interviews conducted by the FBI also could tip off the “nature and extent of what the FBI is investigating,” he said.
Tuchi ordered that all evidence be disclosed, with the caveat that it was not to be shared with anyone outside the defense teams. Then, he said, prosecutors and defense attorneys are to confer on what needs to be redacted and protected to shape the “contours” of the final protective order.
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