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Renzi to remain in prison after criminal convictions upheld by Supreme Court

Former Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi.

Former Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi.

Former Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi is going to remain in federal prison.

Without comment, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld his conviction on charges of extortion, fraud, conspiracy and racketeering. He began serving his three-year prison term in February.

Renzi had argued that members of Congress are entitled to certain constitutional protections from being questioned about their official acts. And that generally would extend to members of the congressman’s staff.

But in a ruling last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Renzi opened the door when he attempted to use his own legislative acts as a defense in the criminal case. And that, the judge said, allowed prosecutors to then question Renzi’s staffers about the acts to make their case that he was lying.

“A congressman cannot claim the protections of the privilege when he himself introduces the volatile evidence,” wrote Judge Richard Tallman for the appellate court.

The main charge relates to efforts by Resolution Copper Co. to acquire land from the federal government it needs to begin mining near Superior.

According to testimony, Renzi, first elected to Congress from the sprawling Arizona district in 2002, agreed to sponsor legislation to authorize Resolution to get the land through a swap with environmentally sensitive land the federal government wanted. But Renzi said that land that Resolution had to buy and offer had to be a 640-acre parcel of land in Cochise County, adjacent to the San Pedro River, which was owned by James Sandlin.

Bruno Hegner, a former Resolution executive, told jurors of an angry phone call from Renzi in 2005 saying that “unless the Sandlin property were included in the exchange package, he would not sponsor legislation.” And Hegner said when he attempted to explain the difficulties of such a deal, Renzi said, “No Sandlin property, no bill.”

Prosecutors said Renzi’s interest in that property was that Sandlin, a former business partner, owed him $700,000 and needed the cash to pay off the debt. And when Hegner found out the pair had been in business together, the company opted not to purchase the Cochise County property and Renzi’s swap legislation died.
He left Congress at the end of 2008 after his indictment but before his trial. Congress finally approved a deal with Resolution last year to acquire the land it wants near Superior.

Renzi also was convicted of a separate effort to get Sandlin’s property purchased by The Aries Group as a condition of pushing a separate exchange of federal land the company wanted near Florence.

Court records show Aries paid Sandlin $1.5 million in principal plus another $153,000 in interest but that a federal land exchange bill with Aries never was introduced.

And he also was found guilty of separate offenses that he embezzled insurance premiums paid by clients of his brokerage firm.

Kelly Kramer, one of Renzi’s Washington, D.C. attorneys, argued that Renzi was interested in having Sandlin’s land acquired because it was being leased to a farmer who was pumping a lot of water from the San Pedro watershed. And that drain of water, in turn, endangered the future of Fort Huachuca.

That is what made crucial the testimony Renzi sought to block from Joanne Keene, his former congressional district director.

She told jurors that Renzi “did not seem very excited and interested in the Resolution Copper exchange” when the Sandlin tract was not longer part of it.” And Keene also said Renzi told her he “wanted to put the brakes on” the Aries exchange after Congressman Duke Cunningham had been indicted on charges of public corruption.

Tallman, in the appellate court ruling, said both conversations were admissible because they went directly to counter Renzi’s arguments there were different reasons for his actions.

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