Former Maricopa County Supervisor Andy Kunasek won a $21 million award following a jury verdict this week in a 2013 lawsuit against developer George Johnson and his family.
Kunasek had alleged that Johnson cut him out of a lucrative business deal after Kunasek refused to do him a political favor. Following a four-week trial, a Maricopa County jury agreed, awarding a total $21 million in damages from various defendants.
George Johnson, the 87-year-old patriarch of the family, is on the hook for the bulk of the money. Johnson’s developments include the Johnson Ranch housing community in San Tan Valley, and the La Camarilla sports club in Scottsdale. His water utility company, Johnson Utilities, serves parts of Pinal County.
Johnson’s children, Barbara and Chris Johnson, as well as defendants Jeff Schneidman and Gary Drummond, also must pay part of the award, the jury decided.
Kunasek, a Republican, served from 1997 to 2016 in the county’s District 3. He told Phoenix New Times that he was in attendance every day at the trial, held in downtown Phoenix at the Maricopa County Superior Court, as was Johnson, his wife, and several of his children.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Kunasek, who was represented by local attorney Timothy Casey. He added that while the jury award was “a lot of money … a staggering number,” he expected an appeal in the case.
Leon Silver, a lawyer with the firm Gordon & Rees, seemed to confirm the latter point in a statement to New Times on behalf of the defendants.
“We are disappointed in the jury verdict as we believe it did not reflect the evidence presented at trial,” Silver said. “We plan to take all appropriate steps to challenge the outcome and protect our clients’ rights.”
The dispute began after Kunasek invested money in deals with Johnson and became partners with Johnson’s children in a small utility business in the mid-2000s.
Then, in 2009, when Johnson “got in trouble” for burying untreated sewage on one of his properties, “he put a lot of pressure on me to make it go away,” Kunasek said. “I said no. He proceeded to take apart a company I had invested $500,000 in, and to screw me. The jury got it.”
During the trial, Kunasek’s expert witnesses in accounting used projections to show the investment would have ballooned over the next 15 years, he said.
It’s unclear if or when he’ll actually see $21 million from Johnson, but “my assumption is they have the money to pay it,” Kunasek said. He added that this may be the first time Johnson has ever lost a big lawsuit.
The developer has a notorious history in Arizona. A 2004 New Times article by Robert Nelson, “Big Bad Developer,” describes how Johnson’s relationship with Pinal County devolved into “myriad accusations of bribery, fraud, broken promises, environmental destruction and other abuses of the public trust.” Yet Johnson emerged from that scandal and continued to grow his businesses. In 2017, he was indicted, along with former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce and others, in an alleged bribery scheme. But the federal case was dismissed against all the defendants in August 2018.
Kunasek, principal of the development-strategy company Arizona Strategies, has a history that includes a long battle with former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas; the county paid him $123,000 in 2013 for legal expenses he incurred in fighting off their unethical claims against him.