After weeks of criticism for not revealing his clients, Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner on Monday cut all ties to Himle Horner Inc., the public relations company he cofounded two decades ago.

The move signals the seriousness of Horner's long-shot campaign for governor and indicates the company's sometimes controversial -- and largely unknown client list -- might have become a distraction in his campaign.

Horner denies that he is reacting to any pressures and says the move is simply the culmination of a gradual, two-year separation from the company.

"You don't unbundle a 21-year relationship in two weeks," Horner said Monday. Previously Horner had said he would divest his interests in Himle Horner if elected governor.

Horner said Monday he will keep one client -- the 14 Twin Cities hospitals that are in heated contract talks with area nurses, who last week held the first in what could be a series of one-day strikes. Horner has acted as a communications consultant for the hospitals and on Monday said he will maintain an "open-ended" contract. He would not disclose terms of the contract, but said the work would require only a couple of hours a week. The hospitals will be Horner's only client, and he pledged to end the relationship if elected governor.

"My complete client list is now disclosed, and that will be my client list for the duration of the campaign," said Horner, a former Republican.

Campaign rival Rob Hahn called Horner's move a hasty decision designed to dull growing concern about how his business involvement could pollute his administration.

"Too little, too late," Hahn said in a statement. "He can sell the shares, but can't get rid of the slime. ... Horner's conflicts don't disappear just because he sells his shares. It's merely another superficial PR spinning ploy to try to fool the voters."

Republicans and some in the Independence Party who question Horner's allegiance have spent weeks tightening the vise on Horner for refusing to disclose his company's client roster, which they said could hide potential conflicts of interest. In addition to the hospitals, Himle Horner's clients include the Minnesota Vikings, who are seeking a taxpayer-funded stadium, an issue likely to be among the first the next governor must address.

Himle Horner is one of the state's largest and most influential public affairs firms, but is privately held, so the dollar value of the company is unknown. Horner did not release the financial details of his separation other than to say he has sold his stock back to the company and cut all professional and financial ties.

He began divesting in 2008, when he sold half of his stake to Todd Rapp, now the company's president.

Horner said the proceeds will go into his retirement account and will not be used to fund his campaign. "It's not making me a multimillionaire," he said of the divestiture.

Horner said he initially had planned to take a leave of absence during the campaign and sell his remaining shares in the company before he took office.

After months of talks with company executives, Horner said now is the time to step off.

"The opportunity to finalize the transition that started two years ago presented itself and it made the most sense for my family, the business and my colleagues," Horner said. "While a sale of stock takes longer to work out than a leave of absence, I'm pleased that a deal was struck that makes sense for everyone involved."

Horner said he has no plans to buy back shares of his former company but added, "You never want to say never."

In the meantime, Himle Horner executives plan to change the company's name by the end of the year to reflect the new ownership.

Since 1989, the firm built a reputation as a leading public relations and crisis management company in Minnesota. The outfit grew as Horner and cofounder John Himle nurtured deep ties in the GOP.

Republicans were among the first to bash Horner, who has positioned himself as a more moderate conservative than the GOP-endorsed candidate, Rep. Tom Emmer.

"Today's action by Tom Horner is a smokescreen designed to divert attention away from his failure to release his client list," said Minnesota Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton. "In addition, Horner needs to make public the full terms of the buyout agreement so the public has a complete understanding of his financial relationship with Himle Horner moving forward."

Horner said the criticism was misdirected, in part because Emmer, an attorney from Delano, has not released a complete list of his clients.

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288