PHOENIX — Three Pinal County residents have filed a class-action civil complaint against George Johnson, as the utility owner faces criminal charges alleging bribing a public official.

The residents filed the complaint in federal court Monday, accusing Johnson of unlawfully raising utility rates. The plaintiffs seek to get back the money they were allegedly overcharged as part of this “illegal scheme.”

The plaintiffs accuse Johnson of sending checks to a third party, who then deposited the money into accounts belonging to Gary Pierce, a former member of the Arizona Corporation Commission. Checks ranging between $3,000 and $7,000 would be deposited on a monthly basis.

Johnson, Pierce and others pleaded not guilty earlier this year to criminal charges of fraud and bribery that prosecutors are pursuing in federal court.

The civil lawsuit accuses Johnson Utilities, which primarily services the San Tan Valley area, of racketeering activity, unjust enrichment and failing to inform customers their increased utility rates were the result of bribery.

According to court documents, the ACC rejected Johnson’s request to increase water rates in 2010. The following year, Pierce introduced an amendment that would allow Johnson to raise rates and have his personal income taxes reimbursed through customer fees. The ACC passed the amendment with a majority vote.

Jeff Goulder, attorney for the plaintiffs, said they want this lawsuit to send a “clear message” to Johnson to not place improper fees on customers.

The plaintiffs are not sure yet exactly how much they seek to recoup from the utility company, but Goulder said his clients could be awarded a tripled amount of the money they were overcharged.

The ACC has received over 300 consumer complaints against Johnson Utilities so far this year, according to 12 News, a significantly higher number than were received in previous years.

A message left with Johnson Utilities was not returned by Wednesday afternoon. According to the company’s website, Johnson removed himself from managing the company in May.

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