PHOENIX — Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's no contest plea in a misdemeanor hit-and-run case came without warning, even for the court.
The unscheduled court appearance came on what was arguably the biggest news day of the year in Phoenix, with state and national media focused on the outcome of the Jodi Arias trial.
City prosecutor Aaron J. Carreon-Ainsa said Horne's lawyer called him early Wednesday afternoon and asked if Horne could appear in court and enter a plea. The Arias verdict was to be read at 1:30 p.m.
The timing had the effect of burying the story and minimizing the political damage for Horne.
Retired Arizona State University political science professor Bruce Merrill says the timing of Horne's plea was politically astute.
"Let me tell you how smart it is — I didn't even know it happened," Merrill said when an Associated Press reporter asked him about the timing on Thursday. "Political people often do that. With the stuff that was going on in Cleveland, with the Arias stuff, even something as important as the hearings on Benghazi, were kind of blown away. So there's absolutely no focus on it."
Horne spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the timing was coincidence. Horne's office announced the plea had been entered just before 5 p.m. Wednesday.
"You all wrote about it, so clearly nothing got past you guys,' Grisham said Thursday.
Defense attorney Michael Kimerer said he was working on a deal all week.
"There was a window and we just wanted to get it done," Kimerer said.
Horne had been fighting the case tooth and nail for months, deposing FBI agents who witnessed the parking lot incident and reported it to Phoenix police, and seeking a dismissal on constitutional grounds. He was scheduled for a trial on the misdemeanor case on May 28.
The FBI agents who were following Horne in March 2012 had apparently been doing so during the course of a campaign finance investigation, although agents interviewed by Kimerer refused to say that was the case.
The FBI waited seven months before notifying Phoenix police — after the Maricopa County attorney's office filed civil charges in the campaign finance case. They also declined to explain that delay, Kimerer said in February. Kimerer previously said that the way the FBI pursued the case showed they "were just rabid to get him."
Just last week, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge blocked the county attorney from pursuing the campaign finance case filed against Horne. The judge ruled that Secretary of State Ken Bennett violated procedure by not sending the case to Horne himself for review.
"It was very fortuitous," Bennett said when asked about the timing of Horne's plea. "Sometimes the stars align for certain people."
Horne and current aide Kathleen Winn were accused of illegally coordinating hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending for Horne during his 2010 campaign.
The case is now back with the secretary of state. Bennett spokesman Matt Roberts said this week that he plans on complying with the judge's order and sending the case to Horne.
Horne is expected to declare a conflict of interest and refer the campaign finance case to another outside prosecutor.