A federal appeals court on June 23 rejected former Rep. Richard Renzi’s claim that his legislative position should protect him from prosecution on charges of fraud and corruption.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it saw “no reason to bar Renzi’s prosecution” on 48 counts, including extortion, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy.
The appeals court also reinstated racketeering act charges against the former Arizona congressman, which had been dismissed by a lower court.
Renzi’s attorneys did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment June 23.Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said that the agency is “extremely pleased with the circuit court’s ruling in this matter.”
Federal prosecutors said that, beginning in 2005, Renzi encouraged private companies to buy land from a former business partner — without telling them of the business relationship or that the former partner owed him more than $700,000.
In exchange, the 1st District congressman promised to support legislation clearing the way for the companies to acquire surface rights to government property near Superior.
Resolution Copper Mining backed out of the deal because Renzi’s former partner, James Sandlin, was asking too much money for the land. According to court documents, Renzi told the company, “No Sandlin property, no bill.”
Within a week, Renzi was making the same offer to an investment group led by Philip Aries, which was seeking the same surface rights. The Aries group agreed to buy the Sandlin property for $4.6 million, wiring $1 million deposit to Sandlin.
A short time later, Sandlin wrote a $200,000 check to a company owned by Renzi. Once the deal closed, Sandlin paid another $533,000 to Patriot Insurance, another Renzi-owned company, court documents said.
Even though the land deal went through, Renzi never introduced a land-exchange bill.
The government launched an investigation that ultimately included interviews with Renzi’s staff, reviews of documents and a wire tap, leading to the charges.
Renzi challenged the indictment under the “speech or debate clause” of the Constitution, which provides lawmakers immunity from prosecution for their “legislative acts.”
The U.S. District Court rejected the claim and the appeals court June 23 upheld the lower court’s decision.
Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman said the clause was never meant to “make member of Congress supercitizens, immune from criminal responsibility.”
Citing precedent from a similar case, Tallman wrote that Renzi’s negotiations were not “by any conceivable interpretation, an act performed as a part or even incidental to the role of a legislator.”
The clause has sweeping protections, but it still has its limits, Tallman wrote, and the “actions for which he (Renzi) is being prosecuted lie beyond those limits.”