- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 5, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - The top prosecutor in Cochise County on Wednesday cleared former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne of a finding that he violated campaign finance laws during his 2010 campaign.

The decision by County Attorney Brian McIntyre said there isn’t enough evidence to uphold a decision made in 2013 by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.

Polk found that Horne and former aide Kathleen Winn engaged in illegal coordination of campaign spending when she ran an outside group supporting his election.

The decision frees Horne from having to repay $400,000 and up to $1.2 million in fines.

The rejection of Polk’s findings came six weeks after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Horne didn’t get a fair hearing when she overruled an administrative law judge who disagreed with her conclusion.

Justice Clint Bolick, writing for the court, said Horne’s due process rights were violated because Polk assisted in the civil prosecution and made the final decision against Horne.

The court ordered Attorney General Mark Brnovich to independently review Polk’s decision. He referred it to McIntyre to avoid a conflict since he defeated Horne in the 2014 Republican primary.

Horne has denied wrongdoing and said the only neutral arbiter of the case ruled in his favor.

“I would say it’s a vindication of the finding of the neutral judge in favor of defendants,” Horne told The Associated Press. “It’s good news.”

Horne’s attorney, Dennis Wilenchik, said he was pleased that Horne has “finally been cleared, and that this oppressive cloud that has (been) hanging over him since before the last election has gone away.

“This case was brought by an overzealous prosecutor who chose to act as ‘judge, jury and executioner’ and to overrule a judge,” Wilenchik added.

Polk didn’t immediately return a call from the AP seeking comment.

Horne declined to discuss the decision in detail, saying he is waiting for the final review into allegations that he used his state staff to run his 2014 re-election campaign to be completed.

A criminal probe of that failed re-election effort was closed without charges by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office last year. A retired judge and Gilbert’s former town attorney are trying to determine if Horne violated civil law by using his office staff to run the 2014 campaign.

Horne agreed to pay $10,000 of his own money to settle allegations from the Citizens Clean Elections Commission related to the same issues and refile his campaign finance reports if the outside review finds he violated the law.

In the 2010 case, Polk concluded that Horne and Winn illegally worked together on ads targeting his opponent, Democrat Felecia Rotellini.

The administrative law judge ruled after a lengthy hearing in 2014 that Polk failed to prove illegal coordination. Polk overturned that decision, saying the judge used the wrong legal standard for strength of the evidence.

In Wednesday’s decision overturning Polk’s reversal of the judge’s ruling, McIntyre wrote that Horne and Winn “certainly engaged in communication during a time frame which would cause any outside observer to cry foul.”

“The record, however, does not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that this communication was illegal,” McIntyre said.

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