PHOENIX -- A Maricopa County Superior Court judge on Thursday blocked a campaign finance violation case against Arizona's attorney general, saying it was improperly brought by the county attorney's office.
Judge John Rea's ruling leaves an uncertain road ahead for the case against Attorney General Tom Horne and aide Kathleen Winn. The two were accused of illegally coordinating outside campaign spending for Horne during his 2010 campaign.
Lawyers for Horne and Winn argued Secretary of State Ken Bennett was required to send the case to Horne's office, not Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who brought the civil case last year. Montgomery argued Horne's conflict of interest made it logical for the secretary of state to send him the case.
But Rea ruled that while the conflict is clear, the law required the referral to Horne first.
``The prosecutor was the judge and the jury, and he decided what the rules would be,'' said Michael Kimerer, Horne's lawyer. ``And the judge said, `You can't do that. You have to follow the law.'''
Montgomery said he won't appeal and will move that his action be dismissed. That sends the case back to Bennett for referral back to Horne. Bennett's spokesman said they were reviewing the case.
``We will now get to see whether or not Tom Horne will continue trying to frustrate the full and fair determination of what occurred by seeing what he does in dealing with the obvious conflict,'' Montgomery told The Associated Press.
Horne spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the attorney general was not commenting other than to say the ruling speaks for itself.
Grisham said Horne won't personally take action on the case.
``Tom will remove himself the case,'' she said. ``He knows it's improper for him to be involved.''
The complaint from the secretary of state will be reviewed and sent to another outside agency, either the Arizona solicitor general or perhaps another county attorney, Grisham said. Regardless, she said it will not go back to Montgomery.
``I think that would be highly inappropriate- he's already made it clear he thinks they're already guilty,'' Grisham said.
Montgomery filed a civil action in October demanding Horne's 2010 campaign and Business Leaders for Arizona return up to $513,000 in contributions. He also said he planned to seek large civil fines.
Candidates cannot discuss strategy or other matters with so-called independent expenditure committees. But there's evidence that Horne was involved in both raising money and deciding how to spend it on advertising by Business Leaders for Arizona, Montgomery said when he announced he was pursuing the case.
Horne's lawyer questioned the strength of the case against his client and said another prosecutor could see it differently.
``If it is referred out to another person, another prosecutor somewhere, they can make a different decision,'' Kimerer said. ``The evidence is really weak. There's no direct evidence, nothing but circumstantial evidence.''
Horne, a lawyer who is the top-elected law enforcement official for the state, has denied any coordination.
Horne defeated Democrat Felecia Rotellini, a former prosecutor and bank regulator, by approximately 63,000 votes out of a total of 1.6 million ballots cast in the 2010 general election for attorney general. She has announced she will run again in 2014.
Winn has denied that her group coordinated its fundraising or spending with Horne. She now works for Horne.
Horne also is facing a misdemeanor hit-and-run case that came to light as FBI agents trailed him while apparently investigating the campaign finance case. The State Bar, which oversees lawyer licensing, also is investigating Horne over accusations stemming from the alleged campaign finance violations.