Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's ties to key players in the Fiesta Bowl scandal have prompted some political opponents to suggest he recuse himself from his office's ongoing investigation of the bowl and its activities.
Horne, a Republican who was elected in November, inherited the investigation from his predecessor, Terry Goddard, a Democrat. Now, the chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party is accusing Horne of being too cozy with lobbyists at the center of the probe.
"The people implicated are the top Republican movers and shakers in state government," Andrei Cherny said Wednesday, referring to Husk Partners and HighGround, Fiesta Bowl lobbyists that also have represented dozens of other clients at the state Capitol. "There is, at the very least, a very strong appearance of conflict of interest."
Horne calls charges of any conflict of interest "idiotic" and said he has no intention of recusing himself.
A 276-page report released last week by the Special Committee of the Fiesta Bowl detailed a culture of excessive spending on bowl employees, politicians and business associates despite rules barring the bowl from using its money to benefit individuals; a system of campaign contributions that could run afoul of state and federal campaign laws; and accounts of efforts by bowl staffers to mislead government investigators. Some activities described in the report could jeopardize the bowl's non-profit status.
Much of the bowl's internal inquiry focused on allegations that Fiesta Bowl executives encouraged staff members to make political donations for which they were later reimbursed. The committee's report says employees told investigators that the bowl tried to hide the reimbursements by repaying employees through "bonuses."
The employees told investigators that political contributions were sometimes delivered by lobbyists, including the bowl's former top lobbyist, Gary Husk, the report said.
Husk has repeatedly said he never delivered campaign contributions from the Fiesta Bowl.
His firm made more than $1.25 million in lobbying fees from the bowl from 2005 to 2010. HighGround made $557,000 during the same time period, records show.
The Fiesta Bowl's business with both firms was suspended last fall.
By then, Goddard's investigation of the campaign-finance allegations was under way, and a grand jury had been impaneled.
That attorney general's probe began in summer 2010 at the request of the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, which had determined there were possible campaign-finance irregularities.
The secretary of state had begun examining the issue after a December 2009 Arizona Republic story detailed the potentially illegal campaign-finance scheme.
The bowl, through Husk, hired former Attorney General Grant Woods after The Republic's story appeared to review the allegations. Woods' brief investigation lasted less than a week and found "no credible evidence" of criminal or ethical violations.
It was subsequently discredited by the bowl's deeper internal investigation, which did not begin until October 2010, after an employee went to the board chairman repeating the campaign-finance charges. The results of that probe were turned over to Horne on March 28. The direction the state investigation will now take is unclear.
That same night, Horne held a large fundraiser at the Valley home of his press secretary. The host committee for the event included Woods and HighGround principals Chuck Coughlin and Doug Cole.
Cole and Coughlin were among the contributors to Horne's campaign last fall, donating a combined $500 in October 2010.
Both have said they were unaware of any suspected wrongdoing by the bowl and its representatives.
In the bowl's investigative report, Woods and the bowl's lobbyists all had some connection to the political activities described by investigators.
The report alleged that Husk helped carry out the campaign-finance scheme and that Woods conducted an investigation that purposefully did not reveal it. Coughlin and Cole, meanwhile, were subcontractors to Husk and accompanied him and various legislators on out-of-state trips paid for by the bowl during the past five years.
Some were not reported by lawmakers as gifts, as required by state law.
"People . . . won't have confidence that a fair investigation is being done," Cherny said of Horne's connections to the men.
In addition, The Republic reported that Husk served as a member of Horne's transition team in late 2002, when Horne was first elected superintendent of public instruction.
Horne dismisses the conflict-of-interest charges, pointing out that he had more than 1,000 people contribute to his campaign last year. He said campaign contributions do not "have anything to do with investigating criminal activity."
"I am going to enforce the laws fully, fairly and impartially," Horne said Wednesday, adding that it is his intention to "investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute" those who may have violated state statutes.
Horne also said that he does not have any personal connection to Husk.
"I have no memory of him being on the transition team," Horne said, adding that his campaign manager and legislative liaison appointed team members. Of Husk, he added: "He is absolutely somebody I do not know."
Gov. Jan Brewer, who is putting together a panel to help the bowl repair its image, said she had confidence in Horne. She accused critics like Cherny of playing partisan politics.
"He has a code of ethics to live by, and I've never seen him perform otherwise," Brewer said.
But James Svara, a professor of public affairs at Arizona State University, disagrees with Horne's stance.
He said the ties do raise questions about Horne's ability to be impartial.
"When it comes to recusal, you want to err on the side of avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest," Svara said, adding that by removing himself from the investigation, Horne would be eliminating a potential distraction to his office. "There is the potential that these questions will keep getting raised."
"It's the question of how the general public sees this," Goddard said.
John Zidich, CEO and publisher of The Arizona Republic, has been on the Fiesta Bowl's 25-member board of directors since 2005. He joined the bowl's five-member executive committee in 2010. The Arizona Republic is a Fiesta Bowl sponsor.
Reporter Craig Harris contributed to this article.