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Two Valley Moms Battle Wealthy Water Baron George Johnson in Court

George Johnson
Town of Florence

Like most rich folks, deep-pockets Scottsdale developer George Johnson is good at getting his way. Maybe not all the time, but often enough.

Earlier this year, when Johnson wanted the right to convey water to an as-yet-undeveloped area of Florence, he got it from the Florence Town Council, saying he needed it for 6,000 homes he planned to build there.

As my colleague, Monica Alonzo, and I reported in our recent series, "Florence Exposed," all but two members of the Town Council supported Johnson, whose company, Johnson Utilities, provides water-and-sewer service to homes in the San Tan Valley and parts of Florence.

Then, in June, Johnson Utilities won the right from the Arizona Corporation Commission to pass on its taxes to customers, an effective increase in its water and sewer rates.

This despite complaints from some of the utility's customers at a June 27 CorpCom hearing regarding low water pressure, "yellow water" coming from faucets, and water that smelled like "sewage."

Johnson Utility customers also mentioned two high-profile incidents in recent memory.

One was from August 2012, when the media learned of the suspected presence of E. coli bacteria in results of water tests required by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for monitoring the state's water supply.

Later, ADEQ issued a notice of violation to Johnson Utilities, based on the presence in its water samples of E. coli and "coliform bacteria," an indicator of possible sewage contamination.

ADEQ also dinged the company for not properly informing the public of the emergency. The company insists the incident was because of "false positives" in the water testing.

Then, in May, TV news reported on foul, smelly water in a pond at the entrance to the community of San Tan Heights.

In various reports, residents described the pond as smelling like raw sewage. ADEQ said it contained treated waste water discharged by Johnson Utilities. As a result, the company had to drain and disinfect the pond.

It only was the most recent problem for the firm.

The company received notices of violation for discharging "approximately 30,000 gallons of sewage [into] a roadside ditch" in 2005, according to one ADEQ document, and for the discharge of "an estimated 500,000 gallons" of treated waste water into a pecan orchard in 2007, causing two "sink holes," according to another.

In 2003, the company paid an $80,000 fine to ADEQ, the agency informs New Times, for "failure to receive approval to build and operate [a] drinking water plant." In 2000, it forked over $10,900 to ADEQ, settling another case.

That's nothing compared to what George Johnson himself has paid out to federal and state agencies.

In 2007, then-Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced that Johnson and his companies had agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Johnson's companies, along with other businesses, illegally bulldozed hundreds of acres of state trust lands and thousands of acres of private lands.

Allegations included, according to an AG press release at the time, destroying 40,000 protected native plants and portions of seven Hohokam archeological sites, discharging pollutants into the Little Colorado River, and "negligently causing a disease epidemic that resulted in the death of at least 21 rare Arizona desert bighorn sheep and serious injury to numerous others."

In part, the AG's suit involved a proposed Johnson development near Marana, the subject of a January 22, 2004, New Times feature ("Big Bad Developer").

Of course, only the more recent violations by Johnson Utilities were at issue when the commission voted in June.

Ultimately, Commissioner Brenda Burns voted against the company's request for a rate increase, while the other four Republicans on the CorpCom voted for it.

At one point, Burns stated for the record that she didn't want anyone listening to the live-streaming proceedings to think that water quality was not important to the commission.

Other women have shown backbone in standing up to Johnson.

Two examples of late are Emily Hughes and Carrie Ribeiro.

Hughes was one of three female customers of Johnson Utilities complaining of "yellow water" at the June 27 CorpCom hearing.

But by then, Hughes, 31, already had taken her outrage to the next level.

A member of the anti-Johnson Utilities Facebook group Citizens Against Johnson Utilities (later renamed San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates), Hughes had been frustrated by what she said was persistent low water pressure in her Johnson Ranch home.

One day, during a hectic morning trying to get herself and her five kids, ages 3 to 11, ready for the day, her shower water went low for what seemed like the umpteenth time, she says.

"So I'm standing around waiting and waiting," she tells me of the day her war with Johnson Utilities began. "I finally got mad enough that I got my phone and [videotaped] my shower."

 

She posted the video to the anti-J.U. Facebook group.

"I came downstairs," she says, "started washing the dishes, turned on the sink, and yellow water started coming out."

She recorded this with her phone, as well, also posting the resulting video to the Facebook group. Her friends encouraged her to contact the media so she forwarded the video to several news outlets.

KPHO responded, showing up at her house to do a story on Hughes' problems with Johnson Utilities, which denied any responsibility for the discolored H2O.

Hughes remained an outspoken critic of the company, and the yellow water story was re-reported by other outlets.

Then, on October 3, George Johnson and Johnson Utilities filed a defamation suit against Hughes in Pinal County Superior Court, claiming that the wife and mother had "repeatedly harassed" the plaintiffs with her "disparaging statements," engaging in a "ceaseless vendetta" against them.

The suit states that the plaintiffs' "direct out-of-pocket costs" resulting from Hughes' "false" claims "exceed $100,000."

In the complaint, the company says it checked the surrounding houses and that none of Hughes' neighbors had yellow water.

"To the extent that any discolored water was present in Defendant's residence," reads the complaint, "such discolored water was either caused by Defendants' own pipes or appliances, or the demonstration was deliberately staged in order to harm plaintiffs' reputation."

It may seem farfetched that the company would sue one homemaker, except that Johnson's sued critics before, filing claims against unhappy patrons of his water and sewer services by hitting them with what are referred to as SLAPP suits, or "strategic lawsuits against public participation."

Even Goddard got served with one after the AG's office sued Johnson in 2005. That defamation suit was dropped as part of the 2007 settlement agreement.

For an ordinary, middle-class person like Hughes, whose husband's hours as a worker for APS recently have been cut, it means employing a lawyer and knowing that a multimillionaire with legal beagles at his beck and call is targeting her family's meager finances.

Hughes has had sleepless nights worrying about the suit. Meanwhile, she's started a defense fund at the site indiegogo.com. She's also selling her house to liquidate her assets.

"It's stressful," she admits. "At the same time, there are so many other people who have the same complaints I do. I kind of feel like I'm a voice all of a sudden for the community."

Though the yellow water since has gone, she says she's still having problems with low water pressure.

Also, she says her water is so hard that it has stained all of her glasses and dishes with milky white streaks that she cannot wash off.

Carrie Ribeiro feels Hughes' pain. Ribeiro, too, is engaged in a legal struggle with Johnson, her former boss, who she says sexually harassed her and wrongfully terminated her employment at Johnson Utilities, where she worked for four years doing everything from writing and designing the company's newsletter to public relations.

She was fired in July 2012 and quickly filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In August, the EEOC gave her permission to sue Johnson, which she is doing in federal court.

She feels she was bullied by Johnson, just as Hughes believes she is getting bullied now, though the bullying Ribeiro says she encountered was from alleged unwanted sexual advances.

Ribeiro, 30, claims Johnson, who is in his 80s, would make comments about how he wished her skirt were shorter and repeatedly propositioned Ribeiro, who is married with three kids and one stepson.

"He would say, 'Oooh, why don't you leave your husband and go with me to Vegas,'" Ribeiro tells me. "He would say that often, and he would say that in front of people. I have witnesses to all that."

She says the company used a lame excuse to fire her: that she was using her company cell phone to take personal calls, though she says she received permission from several at the company, including Johnson, to use the phone for personal reasons.

Ribeiro also alleges in her complaint that Johnson pressured employees "in their casting of votes in public elections." She says she and other employees were ordered to go on trips to the Arizona Capitol to pack legislative hearings with a pro-Johnson crowd when items of interest were discussed.

Johnson's attorney in the Ribeiro case, Lew Clark, said he could not comment on pending litigation. He pointed me to a recent motion by Johnson requesting the suit's dismissal.

The motion denies Ribeiro's allegations and contends that her complaint to the EEOC was not filed in a timely manner.

Johnson and his lawyer in the Hughes complaint did not return calls for comment.

Though Ribeiro's fight against Johnson involves different issues than Hughes alleges, it's taken a similar financial toll on her and her family. She says she's had trouble getting other work, as many businesses are wary of "going against Johnson" by hiring an ex-employee who is suing the powerful developer for sexual harassment.

 

This Christmas is harder for her than 2012's, she says. She cashed out her 401K upon leaving Johnson Utilities, and that money has been used up. Also, she says her federal court costs have been expensive.

Which is one reason that she, like Hughes, is trying to raise money for her legal bills, in part by selling T-shirts she's designed that say, "Will Not Be Bullied."

Ribeiro, who volunteers as a DJ on a local Internet radio station, is steeling herself for the fight with her ex-boss by remembering lyrics from the Tom Petty song, "I Won't Back Down.".

A line from the song goes, "You could stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down."


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