PHOENIX — Attorney General Tom Horne rejected what amounts to a plea deal in his campaign-finance case, setting the stage for hearings later this month on whether he actually broke the law.
Horne said he was willing to settle claims by the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office that he illegally coordinated his 2010 campaign with what was supposed to be an independent committee. That would have short-circuited the need for several days of public hearings that could have proved a political liability.
Horne said the sticking point was a requirement he admit he actually broke the law.
“Even if I decided that settling was in my best interest, I could not get those words through my teeth,” he said. “It’s not true.”
Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Jack Fields said he would not discuss details of the closed-door negotiation.
“Obviously ... we believe he was not in compliance with state law,” Fields said.
Neither Horne nor Fields would discuss any financial proposals.
The complaint by Yavapai County contends Horne controlled and improperly spent close to $500,000, which needs to be refunded. But the law also permits an administrative law judge to impose penalties equal to three times the misspent amount.
Despite Horne’s political problems, the latest campaign finance reports show he has outraised fellow Republican Mark Brnovich by more than 5-to-1. But $100,000 of the $277,000 Horne lists in contributions includes a $100,000 loan from his sister; Brnovich has raised about $50,000.
The case against Horne stems from an FBI investigation of him and the group Business Leaders for Arizona, which was run by Kathleen Winn, who had worked for Horne when he was state schools superintendent. She now works for him in the Attorney General’s Office.
Some polling near the end of the 2010 campaign showed Democrat Felicia Rotellini gaining on him, at least in part because of money spent by a group of Democratic attorneys general attacking Horne. So Winn raised more than $500,000 that was spent on a last-minute commercial.
Horne won the race.
But Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said emails and records of phone conversations involving the Horne and Winn leads her to believe that Winn was not acting independently.
There is no specific law banning coordination between a candidate and an independent committee.
But Polk said that if Horne controlled the funds Winn’s committee raised, these effectively became contributions to his campaign. And several of the donors to Winn’s committee had given far more than the $840 state law let Horne accept from any one source.
Polk ordered Horne to refund the excess, about $400,000, and for him and Winn to amend their campaign finance filings accordingly. Both have refused. Hearings begin Feb. 10 .