A lawyer for a member of the Independent Redistricting Commission told a judge Monday he may seek a "gag order'' to stop Attorney General Tom Horne from comparing his allegations of activities of panel members to Watergate.
Paul Charlton said he understands that Horne wants to question three of the five commissioners to determine whether they violated the state's Open Meeting Law. The commissioners, in turn, contend that law does not apply to them, leaving Horne and his staff powerless to force them to submit to interviews.
But Charlton told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Dean Fink that while Horne is free to litigate that issue, he is not free to "impugn the integrity'' of the commissioners. Charlton said if Horne keeps up the rhetoric, he will ask the judge to bar the attorney general from giving any more interviews on the subject.
Horne, however, was not to be deterred: Moments after the hearing ended, he repeated his allegations, defending his comparison between the conduct of the commissioners he is investigating and the scandal and cover-up that eventually brought down the Nixon administration.
"I think it's exactly accurate,'' he said.
"In Watergate, they tried to use executive privilege to keep information secret,'' Horne said. In this case, he said, commission members are claiming "legislative privilege'' to refuse to divulge conversations they had with each other.
"It didn't work there and I don't think it will work here,'' he said.
The fight is over contentions by Horne that Colleen Mathis, who chairs the commission, called at least two other members of the panel earlier this year while the panel was debating who to choose as a consultant to draw new congressional and legislative boundaries.
Horne contends that she pressed the other commissioners to vote for Strategic Telemetry, a firm with strong ties to Democrats. He said that calling two other commissioners on the five-member panel violates the Open Meeting Law because it involves a majority of the commission making a decision.
Republicans Scott Freeman and Richard Stertz already have talked with Horne's investigators. But Mathis, a political independent, and the two Democrats on the panel, Linda McNulty and Jose Herrera, refused. So he went to court to compel them to speak.
Charlton, whom Mathis hired to represent her, told Fink that Horne needs to cool his rhetoric.
Horne said he will not.
"I think it's shocking that public officials are refusing to testify,'' he said. "And it's my job to make sure that this is not stonewalled and that they do testify.''
Horne said the rules on commenting apply only to criminal cases. He said this is a civil matter, even though the punishment could mean removal from office, whether by a judge or being impeached by the state Senate.
But Charlton said Horne crosses the line when he uses phrases that suggest criminal conduct, including "Watergate'' and "cover-up.''
"Those are not civil allegations,'' he said.
Fink scheduled a hearing on the issue for early next month. But whichever side loses is likely to appeal, further delaying a final ruling on whether the commissioners need to testify.
That raises the possibility that Horne's investigation could drag on into next year, long after the commission adopts final legislative and congressional maps. And Horne said if one or more commissioners are removed from office for violating the Open Meeting Law, that could force the panel to revisit the whole issue, potentially wiping out months of work.