PHOENIX — Tom Horne will pay $10,000 out of his own pocket, ending an investigation into whether he illegally used staffers at the Attorney General’s Office in his unsuccessful re-election campaign.
The deal, set for review today by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, ends the threat Horne could be liable for close to $1 million in penalties arising from allegations that “volunteers” for his Republican primary fight were not really volunteers, but instead state employees in his office.
That is based on a conclusion by Thomas Collins, the commission’s executive director, that Horne used more than $300,000 worth of state employee time and rent in his unsuccessful race.
That amount was not reported on his campaign finance forms. And state law allows penalties up to three times the unreported amount.
Under the terms of the settlement, Horne has to pay the fine himself. He cannot seek reimbursement from any political committee or legal defense fund.
But even if the agreement is approved by the commission, that does not solve all of Horne’s legal problems related to his campaign.
The Secretary of State’s Office has referred a separate complaint about the same issues to Solicitor General Robert Ellman, who is part of Horne’s office.
Ellman, in turn, has farmed the inquiry out to two other private attorneys. That inquiry is ongoing.
Collins said the commission deal also does not affect a separate complaint filed with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office alleging misuse of public funds.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who supported Mark Brnovich, Horne’s successful GOP primary foe and ultimately the winner of the general election, said that inquiry is being handled by others in his office.
But Montgomery said, as a general matter, the settlement of the campaign finance charges would not affect any criminal probe.
Horne declined to comment until after today’s commission vote.
The inquiry began with a complaint by Sarah Beattie, a former AG’s Office staffer, who said she worked on Horne’s re-election bid, and saw other staffers do the same, on state time. Collins, who conducted a preliminary investigation, said there was evidence to back those charges.
For example, he cited an April campaign meeting where, with the exception of a paid out-of-state media consultant, all of those in attendance were employees of the office.
Collins also wrote, in a September recommendation to the commission, that there were “seamless operations” between the state agency and the campaign “at the highest levels,” including fundraising, which show Horne effectively took donations from state taxpayers.
Collins said this is legally no different than if a private corporation had paid its employees to “volunteer” for a campaign.
That would make the politician the beneficiary of illegal corporate donations. Similarly, public funds cannot be used for campaigning.
Further, Collins said, Horne did not report the value of the donations as legally required on campaign finance reports.
Collins said the settlement, if approved by the commission, makes sense.
“It acknowledges that it’s illegal for state employees to campaign on state time,” he said. “It involves a significant fine.”
And Collins said it requires Horne to abide by any findings related to the secretary of state’s complaint about failure to follow campaign finance laws. He said that means Horne will have to fully account for the value of each and every hour of state employee staff time and office space used by his campaign.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake, in his preliminary investigation, found his own reasons to believe that Horne had violated the law.
Drake said Horne’s responses to the inquiry backed up Beattie’s claims that workers at Horne’s office “were not volunteering but instead were being compensated by the state of Arizona while conducting campaign activities.” That included using state computers to prepare campaign materials on state time.
And Drake said Horne submitted no evidence that his office followed state laws or other procedures “to prevent campaign activities from occurring during these work hours, which could have provided a viable and meaningful defense to these allegations.”
Horne is also still facing separate charges, and a potential $1.2 million penalty, in connection with his first campaign for attorney general in 2010.
In that case, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk said Horne had illegally coordinated his campaign with what was supposed to be an independent committee.
Horne is appealing a Maricopa County Superior Court ruling that requires Horne to refund nearly $400,000 Polk said his campaign received illegally, with a potential penalty of up to three times that amount.
Follow Howard Fischer on Twitter at @azcapmedia.