Former Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce and Johnson Utilities owner George Johnson, among others, were indicted in federal court on charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud.
The recent indictment of four Arizona political figures has forced an unwelcome decision on the numerous elected officials they’ve lavished with campaign contributions over the years: what to do with the cash?
So far their responses vary.
Gov. Doug Ducey plans to keep nearly $14,000 in donations from those charged in the federal indictment alleging bribery intended to influence the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Even as the governor sees no reason to distance himself from the situation, other elected officials told The Arizona Republic they plan to unload the money to avoid any “taint” from the felony case.
“Frankly, for me … with my integrity, I just don’t want to have any questions involving anything at all,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, a Coolidge Republican, who on Friday donated $500 from his campaign to the Coolidge Youth Coalition and $750 to Against Abuse in Casa Grande.
Still others said they would await a verdict before deciding whether to distance themselves from their political benefactors.
Andy Tobin, a Republican Corporation Commission member who has received more than $12,000 from lobbyist Jim Norton and Pinal County developer George Johnson during his political career, said he would only get rid of the funds if they are convicted.
“I think everyone’s entitled to their day in court,” Tobin said.
Both Johnson and Norton pleaded not guilty last week to fraud, bribery and other allegations, along with former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce and his wife Sherry Pierce.
During the past two decades, more than 150 politicians have taken money from those named in the indictment, according to campaign-finance records.
The Republic reached out to a dozen current and former officeholders who received the lion’s share of the more than $135,000 in state-level contributions from the indicted individuals, mainly Norton and Johnson. The men also made more than $100,000 in contributions to candidates for federal offices — Congress and the presidency — during the same time span.
Norton’s spokesman, Matthew Benson, declined to comment about the lobbyist’s political contributions. Reached by phone, Johnson announced he had “no comment” before hanging up.
While word of the indictments has rocked Arizona political political and business circles, some officials said it had not occurred to them to reassess their financial ties to those involved.
“I haven’t thought about it at all,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who received $1,400 from Norton in 2013. “I’ve always assumed people are innocent until proven guilty. I’ll think about it and I’ll talk to my political consultant, too, and see what he thinks.”
Case of hypocrisy?
If the case proves to be a political liability, that could be especially problematic for Republicans not only because they received most of the money but also because they’ve recently made hay of controversial donations to an Arizona Democrat.
GOP candidates received more than 88 percent of state contributions made by those named in the indictment dating back to 1997. Democrats received 9 percent of the money while issue-oriented groups received the rest, according to a Republic analysis of the state campaign finance records.
At the federal level, 77 percent of the contributions went to Republicans and 23 percent aided Democrats.
The indictments come two months after some in the GOP said they were outraged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s accepting $53,000 from people linked to a website accused of knowingly accepting ads offering sex with underage girls.
Sinema, who has raised nearly $11 million in her congressional career, struggled for days to find a charity willing to take the funds and Republicans criticized her failure to adequately screen her donors.
But the spokeswoman for the Arizona Republican Party, Torunn Sinclair, who has blistered Sinema for accepting donations from the unindicted founders of Backpage.com, said the donations from the four Arizonans indicted on bribery, fraud, and other charges, are perfectly acceptable.
According to federal campaign data, the Arizona Republican Party accepted $7,224 in donations from three of those indicted: $5,700 of the donations came from Norton while the remainder came from Gary and Sherry Pierce.
Sinclair argued that it is not hypocritical of Republicans to accept donations from Norton and Johnson while criticizing Sinema because “there’s a big difference between alleged bribery and turning a blind eye to child sex trafficking.”
And while their aggregate numbers are much smaller, Democrats also accepted donations from those named in the indictment.
Former U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, an Arizona Democrat, took the most federal campaign money, $18,200, nearly all of which came from Johnson.
And Sinema received donations from Norton: $150 for a 2009 state Senate race and $250 for her 2012 congressional campaign.
A spokeswoman said the state campaign committee has been closed for years and the congressional contribution was earmarked for the primary, which was entirely spent.
“The money is gone. There is no money to return,” Macey Matthews said.
The issue of potentially tainted donors is one politicians can always expect to trail them, said John J. “Jack” Pitney Jr., who teaches about government at Claremont McKenna College in southern California.
“Political opponents always try to tie politicians to unpopular contributors,” he said. “Is it a fair attack line? It really depends on the circumstances. First of all it depends on the size of the contribution. It also involves whether the contributor had some kind of other relationship with the politician. Did this contributor do business with the candidate?”
Donations from the indicted
Some Republican officials were uneasy keeping the money after fielding questions from The Republic in the days following the indictments.
State Sen. Frank Pratt, a Casa Grande Republican who accepted $3,000 from Johnson, and State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, who received $500 each from Johnson and Norton, said they were preparing to donate equivalent amounts to charity.
DeWit said he began making plans to unload the funds shortly after learning of the federal indictment.
“When something like this happens … you want to make sure the public knows you’re not involved in any impropriety. Even though it’s well after the fact that you find out a donation came from someone that later had trouble, it seems the most appropriate thing is to make sure that money is donated to charity.”
Likewise, Shope, who donated the funds to charity, said given the charges against them “I believe that there’s probably some taint here.”
Secretary of State Michele Reagan will donate $750 to charity, the amount that she received from Johnson, her campaign consultant, Kyle Moyer said. He would not immediately say whether she will keep the $1,900 Norton gave her.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who received $2,000 from Johnson in 2013 and $250 from Norton in 2014, could not be reached to comment.
Former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu received the most political cash, $24,000 from Johnson to a state political-action committee in Babeu’s name. He also collected $5,000 from Johnson for his 2012 congressional bid. He could not be reached for comment.
Rep. Don Shooter, a Yuma Republican, said he has no plans to do anything with the $898 he received from Norton.
“It’s probably all gone, as far as that goes,” Shooter said. “I don’t think that (the federal investigation) has anything to do with me.”
Pastor, who retired from Congress in 2015, noted the contributions from Johnson came over the course of a long political career. Johnson, a one-time constituent, never made any improper requests of him, he said. And Pastor gave nearly all his excess campaign money to ASU, $1 million overall, years ago.
“Politics is about human beings and you’ll find all kinds of human behavior, some good and some bad,” Pastor said. “I’m sorry in this particular case (Johnson) got involved with something that caused him problems.”
Norton’s status as a go-to lobbyist has quickly faded as high-profile clients have abandoned his 2-year-old firm. He stepped away from Axiom Public Affairs in an effort to halt the exodus. Johnson has also removed himself from the management of Johnson Utilities.
According to the May 23 indictment in U.S. District Court, federal investigators believe former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce helped 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 spokesman for the state Democratic Party accused Republicans of creating and funding a culture in which alleged bribery is acceptable.
Enrique Gutierrez called on Republicans to return the “tainted money” and “cut ties with those responsible for decaying” state government.
“These individuals, … who have been indicted on bribery charges, are the very same power players that fill up the coffers of the Republican Party and the current occupant of the 9th floor,” Gutierrez wrote, referring to Ducey.
The Maricopa County Democratic Party was the single largest beneficiary for that party. Johnson gave the party $7,500 in two payments in 2011 that include the period of the alleged bribery.
Chairman Steven Slugocki indicated the party won’t be getting rid of that sum. “We have elected four different chairs since this time and hired two new executive directors since the contributions were fully spent,” he wrote in a statement.
For most, the cash amounts are relatively low, reflecting Arizona’s lower campaign finance limits and the comparatively modest costs of running for state-level office in years past.
Still, the money does suggest bonds that could become a political liability.
Johnson’s $24,000 gift to Babeu’s state PAC in 2014, for example, represented nearly a third of the money that organization received during that election cycle.
The $3,000 Johnson gave to Pratt made him the largest single donor to the campaign, which raised $41,000 from individuals overall.
And Ducey’s money, $4,000 from Johnson and $9,800 from Norton, came in a dozen separate contributions stretched over six years. The contributions from Norton, a friend of Ducey’s since their days as students at Arizona State University, included $5,000 to Ducey’s 2018 re-election campaign.
Ducey’s campaign adviser, J.P. Twist, said the governor would not return the money.
“We’ll see where the chips fall as it relates to the court case,” Twist said. “We’ll make a determination later on.”
Republican state Sen. Steve Montenegro, of Litchfield Park, said he, too, would wait until justice was meted out.
“I’m not doing anything, I’m not touching anything,” he said of a $500 contribution his campaign got in 2015 from Norton. “I don’t know anything about it so I’m going to go ahead and wait … until actual investigations are handled.”
Republic Staff Writer Rob O’Dell contributed to this report.
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