Allegations of campaign-finance violations involving Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne and his outreach director, Kathleen Winn, are now in the hands of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk after being referred to Polk's office by state Solicitor General Robert Ellman.
Last week, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett sent a letter to Ellman's office, advising him that Bennett had found "reasonable cause" to believe that Horne and Winn coordinated during the 2010 general election.
At that time, Winn was running an independent expenditure committee that supported Horne's candidacy against Democrat Felecia Rotellini. Such coordination would be illegal under Arizona law and could trigger a civil penalty of three times the amount raised by Winn.
See Also: Tom Horne's Alleged Mistress Carmen Chenal Resigns Post as Assistant Attorney General Bill Montgomery Screwed Up Tom Horne Complaint, Second Judge Rules Arizona AG Tom Horne's Sex Scandal Scuttles Gubernatorial Bid
As Ellman reports to Horne, and since Horne has an obvious conflict of interest, Ellman has referred the case to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, appointing her a Special Arizona Attorney General and promising to pick up the tab for the legal expenses.
"In discharging your duties pursuant to this appointment," Ellman wrote her on June 27, "you shall in no way be subject to the direction of the attorney general or me."
Horne spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham contended via e-mail that Horne, Winn, and their immediate staff had been "shut out from any discussion regarding the placement of this matter."
Ellman acted as Horne's "designee" during the process, she said. And the AG's staff members have been instructed not to discuss the case with Horne or Winn to avoid a further conflict or the "appearance of impropriety."
Polk's will be the second county attorney's office and the third prosecutor's office to look into the Horne-Winn affair.
An FBI probe into Horne's office, prompted by whistleblower Meg Hinchey, uncovered allegations of tampering with witnesses, obstruction of justice, violations of state campaign finance laws, and the now-notorious vehicular hit-and-run, which Horne recently pleaded no contest to, paying a fine of $300.
The U.S. Attorney's Office did not bring federal charges on the more serious allegations, and instead handed the ball to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose investigators had been brought into the case by the FBI.
Montgomery declined to file criminal charges and forwarded the case file to Bennett, who in turn sent it back to Monty with a probable-cause letter. Montgomery sent the case to an administrative law judge, who ultimately suggested that the case be dismissed, because Bennett should have sent the case to the AG's Office.
The matter ended up in superior court, where Judge John Rea shot down Monty and ruled that the administrative law judge had been correct. The proper procedure had not been followed by Montgomery and Bennett, said Rea.
The Arizona Legislature has since passed a law allowing Bennett to choose an outside counsel himself when the allegations involve the AG's Office.
I asked SOS spokesman Matt Roberts why Bennett chose the route of sending the case to the solicitor general. Roberts replied that the SOS was complying with Judge Rea's order. He pointed out the general effective date for that new law is sometime in September.
Contacted for comment, Polk issued the following statement on the Horne-Winn matter:
"I have agreed to assume responsibility for this matter in accordance with the Arizona Supreme Court's rules of professional responsibility. I will not be making any extra-judicial statements about this subject. I take this responsibility seriously. And it is my intention to address this matter expeditiously and to ensure the fair administration of the law."
Though Polk is a Republican, she has not been shy about butting heads with fellow Rs in law enforcement, such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former County Attorney Andy Thomas, who was disbarred in 2012 for unethical and likely illegal conduct.
In 2009, Polk penned a letter to the Arizona Republic, wherein she described her disgust at having to deal with some of the bogus cases conflicted out to her by Thomas and her relief at returning them to the MCAO.
"I am conservative and passionately believe in limited government," she wrote, referring to the Thomas-Arpaio axis, "not the totalitarianism that is spreading before my eyes."
Elections law expert Tom Ryan said he thought Polk would handle the allegations against Horne and Winn properly.
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"I believe Sheila Polk has the integrity to follow through on the investigation and prosecute those things that need to be prosecuted and ferret out those things that are not prosecutable," he told me.
"She really has demonstrated a lot of integrity already in that regard. One only need to see how she handled all the stuff with Sheriff Joe Arpaio when they were trying to improperly prosecute people."
If Polk seeks a remedy to the Horne matter through the courts, Horne should either resign or not seek re-election and spare himself the utter humiliation of being crushed by a primary rival or by AG-in-waiting Rotellini.
That's what Horne should do, but he's known for doing exactly the opposite. I don't expect he'll go gently into the political abyss. Rather, I anticipate an excruciatingly slow political death.