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Group launches AZ Watergate campaign over water problems in Pinal County

Posted at 7:43 PM, Feb 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-21 07:24:36-05

It's a company riddled with scandal, the owner now under a federal indictment for bribery and fraud. Now the management of Johnson Utilities is asking the community that's fed up with them for another 23 percent water rate hike.

As public hearings are held, a progressive group calling themselves non-profit, and non-partisan has launched a campaign called AZ Watergate, in light of the water problems San Tan Valley has been plagued with.

"We deserve fair bills, adequate service, and water that's safe to drink. So far Johnson Utilities has failed to provide that. The water smells like sewage and chemicals, comes out of the taps brown or discolored. Bills that claim people have used 60,000 gallons in a given month, bills that inexplicable double from one month to the next," said Emily Kirkland, the co-director of Progress Now Arizona, who had spent several hours that morning listening to concerns from many Johnson Utilities customers.

The company has launched a website called that told the whole story of a small community held hostage by their water company.  

Kirkland said their website also showed all the connections between George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities and some of the most powerful people in Arizona, including top leaders in the Republican Party.  

"Johnson himself has given $27,000 to GOP candidates over the years, as well as $3,000 to Democrats, including giving nearly the maximum to Governor Ducey," Kirkland said. 

The website outlines the federal lawsuit against Johnson, including the allegations that Johnson conspired with Republican lobbyist Jim Norton to bribe former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce and his wife Sheila to help him win favor to get a water rate increase in 2011.

"Our goal is to call on Governor Ducey and other statewide elected officials to put clean water first by first cutting their ties with Johnson, Norton, and Pierce. That means returning the thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that they have received," Kirkland said. 

Morgan Dick with the Arizona Advocacy Network said "dark money contributions" to political campaigns had sky-rocketed in Arizona. She described "dark money" as contributions without a paper trail.

ABC15 Arizona reached out to Governor Doug Ducey's office for a comment. A spokesman from his campaign office released this statement:

If this far-left partisan group had even a shred of credibly, they would be launching attacks at Democrats who have taken money from these individuals, but they are not. If an extremist group like this opposes the governor's agenda, we must be doing something right, because we couldn't disagree more with their leftist tax-and-spend agenda. Background on contributions: As the Capitol Times reported last year, our campaign donated all campaign contributions from Jim Norton and George Johnson and his wife to the Salvation Army.

ABC15 Arizona also reached out the Arizona Republican and Democratic parties for comment.

The AZ Republican Party sent us this statement:

Progress Now Arizona is trying to make political hay out of men that haven’t even been convicted. Meanwhile, Progress Now Arizona is turning a blind eye to $40,000 the Arizona Democratic Party took from Backpage founders James Larkin and Michael Lacey. Backpage is a website that knowingly turns a blind eye to the sex trafficking of women and children, and many traffickings have happened right here in Arizona. There's even bipartisan consensus in the United States Senate to hold Backpage accountable. 

David Garcia also took money from the Backpage founders, and he said that he was going to donate it! Unless I’m missing something in his campaign finance reports, I don’t see any donations. 

Also, if Progress Now Arizona is going to call on Republicans to return the money from George Johnson and others, they should also call on the Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema, to return the money they took  from them as well. I’d recommend asking Progress Now Arizona for a list of Democrats who took Johnson’s money too.

While Democratic Party leaders said:

The culture of corruption inside the Corporation Commission is at the heart of this issue. When Republican utility regulators are in bed with utility companies and are gouging Arizona taxpayers, we must say enough. Arizona Democrats are more concerned with fighting corruption and restoring confidence in our government institutions than to play politics with taxpayer money.

Since the federal indictment came down, the Arizona Corporation Commission has also been in the public spotlight. Kirkland called on the company to be more transparent, and to reform their "culture of corruption."

ABC15 Arizona reached out to the ACC to find out what changes, if any, they have made since the indictments came down.

A spokeswoman sent us this statement:

Today’s Corporation Commission is comprised of a different group of Commissioners from the time when certain events occurred which gave rise to federal charges against a utility owner and a now former member of the Commission. When the indictment was handed down in May, the Commission took swift action beginning with a rate review and ultimately ordering the utility to file for a utilities rate case. This gives the Corporation Commission the opportunity to do a full audit of the utility’s financials and operations, including their customer service practices.
The Corporation Commission called for these public meetings today and tomorrow to hear from the customers who have a right to clean, available, and affordable water and wastewater services. Commissioners are committed to listening to these customers’ experiences. We will not have a rate case filed behind closed doors. 

Public hearings for the water rate increase in Pinal County will continue on Wednesday at the following location and times:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Central Arizona College
San Tan Campus, Rooms A100 & A101
3736 E. Bella Vista Road, San Tan Valley, AZ 85143

Three sessions available to choose from:
8 a.m. – 10 a.m.
12 p.m. – 2 p.m.
6 p.m. – 8 p.m.