Tom Horne's Latest Defeat: Campaign Complaint Against His Critics Denied

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What fun we'll have next year watching Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, one of Arizona's sleaziest politicians, crash and burn.

Indeed, Horne's recent failure to silence the Arizona Public Integrity Alliance, which has been running TV ads critical of him, offers a preview of the vicarious pleasures to come in 2014.

The AG's effort to shut up the AZPIA through a bogus SLAPP suit already has gone down in flames.

Now his ironic attempt at a campaign complaint against AZPIA to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office is kaput as well, rejected by the state election director, an employee of the SOS.

In November, Horne's lawyer Sandra Slaton -- who is also a contract attorney with the AG's office -- sent a letter to the SOS, alleging that AZPIA violated Arizona law by not filing as an independent campaign committee.

Slaton contended AZPIA has to do this because it's running ads that "call for Tom Horne's defeat" in his 2014 re-election bid.

AZPIA's attorney Kory Langhofer shot back a response, pointing out that Slaton's analysis and her facts were dead wrong.

"Fairly viewed," wrote Langhofer, "the advertisements are commentary on Horne's past conduct and the importance of Horne returning $400,000 in campaign contributions, and in no way advocate for Horne's reelection or defeat."

Langhofer noted that the ads began running a year in advance of the 2014 general election, and that they could not have run any earlier, as the commercials were prompted by Horne's most recent refusal to pay back the $400K.

Nor is AZPIA's primary purpose to influence elections, Langhofer argued, offering as evidence AZPIA's other advocacy, and pointing to the non-profit's articles of incorporation, which describe a broader mission for the group.

"It cannot be true that every public statement calling into question the propriety of an elected official's conduct constitutes an `expenditure' that is made `for the purpose of influencing an election,'" wrote Langhofer. "Horne's argument, if accepted would have the effect of bringing all or virtually all criticisms of elected officials under the umbrella of campaign finance regulations."

Which is precisely what Horne was intending -- the chilling of free speech critical of him.

In fact, the letter Horne's lawyer wrote to Cox Media, saying that she represented "Tom Horne, Republican Attorney General," and her threat that Cox could be found guilty of "broadcasting in furtherance of illegal activity," constituted a blatant misuse of Horne's position as the top law enforcement official in Arizona.

State elections director Christina Estes-Werther agreed with Langhofer's argument, finding in a letter to Slaton dated December 9, that Langhofer had refuted Slaton's allegations.

"There is no evidence that AZPIA is a political committee," stated Estes-Werther, adding, "We find that AZPIA is not subject to registration and disclosure requirements...and there is insufficient basis to find reasonable cause that AZPIA violated campaign finance laws."

Since the beginning of November, AZPIA has been running TV ads and sending out mailers targeting Horne's ethical lapses.

The ads encourage viewers to call Horne and tell him to give back the $400,000 that two Republican county attorneys have said was illegally used to help Horne in the 2010 general election.

Horne responded with the SLAPP suit, claiming he was defamed by the group because the ad initially made an error, stating that Horne is currently under investigation by the FBI, when that investigation has been past tense for more than a year now.

AZPIA corrected the ad, and made a very mild apology for the slip-up. The group has continued to run the corrected ad. According to AZPIA, the ad buy completed its initial run the first week in December, and there will be more to come, AZPIA promised.

AZPIA Executive Vice President Tyler Montague decried Horne's bumbling legal maneuvers and the AG's attempt to intimidate his critics.

"It seems like Horne is using the power of his office to attack his critics," Montague told me. "That makes Horne one mole-stache and a Messiah complex away from being the new Andrew Thomas."

Elections law expert Tom Ryan, who offered to defend AZPIA against the SLAPP suit for free -- thereby scaring Horne into a quick retreat -- had some Christmas-time advice for the embattled AG, when I phoned him for comment.

"Mr. Horne, own up to your past," he said. "If you intend to run, be aware that people are going to point out your past to the [citizens] of Arizona. Deal with it...Go sit on Santa's lap, and ask for a Y chromosome for Christmas."

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