The state House Judiciary Committee approved limited immunity Wednesday for a key witness in the impeachment investigation of Arizona utility regulator Jim Irvin of Scottsdale.
Special prosecutor Melvin McDonald told the committee that former Irvin aide Jack Rose invoked his constitutional right to silence last week as Rose was questioned for a deposition about matters relating to two failed bids to buy Southwest Gas. Rose also refused to testify last year in a civil lawsuit against Irvin that resulted in a $60.4 million jury verdict for abusing the power of his office by lobbying on behalf of one potential buyer over another bidder.
McDonald said the Legislature has rarely invoked its power to grant immunity and to order a witness to testify under oath. But this was the only way to learn what Rose knows about Irvin’s actions as a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which would have had to consider approving a sale of the company.
"We have gone through every step and this is now the last step, for a vote of the committee to direct him to answer the questions," McDonald said.
The committee unanimously voted to provide Rose "use" immunity, meaning he can’t be prosecuted for anything he tells special prosecutors. But Rose still can be charged for any criminal acts, if prosecutors can make a case without the legislative testimony.
Rose was granted similar use immunity when a federal grand jury investigated Irvin, McDonald said. But U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton closed the case without filing any criminal charges and grand jury secrecy prevents state officials from seeing Rose’s statements.
County, state and federal prosecutors agreed to McDonald’s request to grant immunity a second time.
Irvin and Rose were defendants in the civil case last year brought by Southern Union Co., a Texas firm that accused them of undermining its bid for Southwest Gas in favor of Oklahoma-based Oneok.
The legislative move came as U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver, who presided in that case, ruled Wednesday the jurors had more than enough evidence to conclude Irvin misused his powers as a state utility regulator — the same grounds state lawmakers will review to determine if he should forfeit his office.
Silver rejected Irvin’s arguments he had the legal authority to investigate and intercede in the question of which of two offers the Southwest Gas board should accept.
She said while commissioners have the power and the duty to investigate proposed merger candidates they "must do so neutrally, fairly, and without a preconceived animus against one candidate, and the personal bias and aggrandizement in favor of another.’’ And, she said, the commissioners must avoid any effort to improperly influence their decisions.