TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday sentenced former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi to three years in prison for convictions on public corruption, money laundering and other charges, capping a corruption case prosecutors said began more than a decade ago.
U.S. District Judge David C. Bury also sentenced Renzi co-defendant James Sandlin to 18 months in prison, and ordered both men to pay fines. They are to begin their prison terms in January.
“I’m not wise enough to know why good people do bad things — I think character and avarice have something to do with it,” Bury said. “That’s what happened here. Two good men committed bad acts.”
Renzi, a Republican, represented Arizona’s sprawling 1st Congressional District from early 2003 until early 2009. He chose not to run for re-election in 2008 while facing the federal indictment.
A federal jury in Tucson convicted him in June on 17 of 32 counts, including wire fraud, conspiracy, extortion, racketeering, money laundering and making false statements to insurance regulators. He was acquitted on the remaining counts.
Prosecutors said Renzi, 55, now of Burke, Va., looted a family insurance business to help pay for his 2002 campaign.
He was not convicted of illegally using money from his insurance firm, but was convicted of filing false statement with regulators after failing to use premiums collected from nonprofit groups to buy policies.
The indictment also charged that Renzi, while in office in 2005, held hostage possible parcel swaps involving public land proposed as the site for an Arizona copper mine unless it included purchasing private land owned by Sandlin, a former Renzi business associate.
According to the indictment, an investment group agreed to pay $4.6 million for Sandlin’s land. He then paid Renzi $733,000 for his help.
The U.S. Probation Office recommended that Renzi be sentenced to 33 months in federal prison, but prosecutors wanted up to 12 years.
Bury said his calculations on federal sentencing guidelines came up with a range of 8 to 10 years but that he had a hard time handing down that long a sentence.
“I have serious reservations as to whether or not they reflect the offense in the case, or the offenses in the case,” Bury said of the guidelines.
The defenses asked for probation.
Renzi’s lawyer told Bury that Renzi’s motives were pure when he tried to arrange a swap of land his ex-business partner, Sandlin, owned that would help reduce water use in Cochise County. Attorney Chris Niewoehner said in essence Renzi failed to disclose a conflict of interest and said the insurance convictions came from paperwork issues that led to no losses to insurers or clients.
Prosecutors said Renzi abused his office for personal gain, and asked Bury to remember that 535 members of Congress were watching the results of Monday’s sentencing and he needed to send a message that corruption is dealt with harshly.
“Mr. Renzi leaned on his constituents to line his own pockets,” federal prosecutor David Harbach II told the judge. To call his crime ‘a failure to disclose’ “is a massive understatement of what went on here.”
Renzi, who declined to comment after sentencing other than vowing to keep fighting, also minimized his crimes while addressing the judge.
“I want to ask forgiveness for what I put you through,” Renzi told Bury, adding his apologies to his lawyers, the prosecutors and the jury that convicted him. “I should have done more to communicate my relationship with Mr. Sandlin and done a better job managing my insurance business.”
Sandlin, 62, of Sherman, Texas, was convicted on 13 counts including conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion and money laundering.
Renzi and his wife have 12 children, and his oldest son, Ron, tearfully asked Bury to spare his father prison. He said Rick Renzi had taken friends who didn’t have strong families in “like they were his own.”
“He’s been our hero,” Ron Renzi said. “There’s no one like him.”