Opening arguments in the Tucson trial of former Arizona Representative Rick Renzi (R-AZ) began Wednesday with federal prosecution characterizing Renzi as having engaged in “lying and stealing … taking advantage of people” and having “sold out his office.” Meanwhile Renzi counsel Kelly Kramer contended that his client “didn’t extort anybody … solicit any bribes” or “defraud anyone.” Charged with 32 counts of conspiracy, fraud and extortion, if convicted the three-term former congressman from Arizona’s 1st District could face up to 400 years of prison.
Renzi is accused of using his office to help co-defendant James Sandlin. As Wall Street Journal reporter John Wile wrote in 2007, “Investigators…[recently] uncovered evidence that Mr. Renzi received a cash payment from his former business partner, funneled through a family wine company, after a second investor group pursuing an unrelated land swap agreed to pay $4 million for [an] alfalfa field.” In 2008 the Justice Department alleged that the 2005 federal land deal vicariously netted the congressman over $700,000.
Prosecutors said Renzi, who served on the House Natural Resources Committee, was approached by two groups invested in a federal land exchange. Dennis Wagner writes at The Arizona Republic:
Resolution Copper Mining wanted surface rights to an ore-laden national forest area near [the town of] Superior. Another investment group involving former Gov. Bruce Babbitt [(D)] was seeking to trade private conservation land for potential development properties owned by the government near Phoenix.
In response to their request, Renzi allegedly replied, “No Sandlin land, no deal.”
“That’s extortion,” said Justice Department attorney David Harbach Wednesday.
In response to the representative’s alleged terms, one of the two groups actually paid Sandlin a million dollars with promises of another $3 million. Federal prosecutors say Sandlin then laundered that initial payment into Renzi’s hands.
Kramer said federal prosecutors were just “trying to find a way to go after a congressman,” and joined Sandlin’s representation to assert the payment to Renzi was entirely coincidental. Kramer said that Sandlin’s surrendering to the federal government land that included an alfalfa field in actuality amounted to a sense of civic responsibility, as nearby Fort Huachuca was facing potential closure due to water shortage.
Between 2006 and 2008 Renzi had held the dubious distinction of being named among Congress’s 20 most corrupt by the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. To many, Renzi’s insistence on introducing and voting on legislation to benefit his father’s Fairfax, Va.-based defense contracting firm, ManTech, was seen as emblematic of the largesse that nepotism can afford in the Beltway. Renzi’s votes aiding his father’s contracting firm are unrelated to the charges he and Sandlin currently face.
Following disclosure of a federal wiretap activity related to his charges, Renzi chose not to seek re-election in 2008. Over a hundred witnesses will be called in the trial, which The Arizona Republic reports is expected to last two months.