Former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi goes on trial this week in a decade-old case marked by issues of constitutional importance as well as allegations of shabby real estate dealings. And it is not much of a stretch to say that the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section will also be on trial.
The three-term Republican faces charges that include extortion, fraud, racketeering and money laundering involving his insurance business and his conduct as a legislator, the Arizona Republic noted in its preview of the trial, which begins Tuesday in Tucson with jury selection and could last many weeks.
The DOJ has not called attention to the trial, and it may well be that Renzi’s name is not that familiar outside Arizona, except to people who like to follow political scandals. But the Public Integrity Section could use a courtroom victory after the debacle and heartbreak surrounding the prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska and the unsatisfying outcome (at least from the DOJ’s perspective) of the trial of John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and one-time White House hopeful.
In the long run-up to the Renzi trial, prosecutors have made some missteps involving improper wiretaps of Renzi’s conversations with his lawyers, much to the annoyance of Judge David Bury of the District of Arizona. One defendant in the scandal (if it is a scandal) has been acquitted, and another has won acquittal on appeal. So somewhere in the halls of DOJ headquarters in Washington there must be people praying, “Please, not again!”
But while 16 charges against Renzi have been thrown out, more than 30 remain as the curtain goes up on the courtroom drama. Renzi was indicted more than five years ago on charges accusing him of using his post on the House Natural Resources Committee to enrich himself and accomplices through a series of complicated land swaps. If convicted, he could be separated by prison bars from his wife, Roberta, and their 12 children until he is an old man — he is now 54 — and be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars (see a New York Times account.) He has pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.
As the Republic noted, some three dozen attorneys have taken part in the case so far. There have been more than 1,145 motions, briefs, responses, judicial rulings and appeals.
Why all this over accusations of greed and garden-variety political corruption?
Because in trying to get the charges tossed out, Renzi cited the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution, which confers protection on members of Congress from prosecution related to their legislative acts. A federal district court ruled against him on that issue, as did a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which declared in 2011 that the Speech or Debate Clause did not make members of Congress “supercitizens immune from criminal responsibility,” as Main Justice reported at the time.
So the stage is set for a trial in which widely different portraits of Renzi will be sketched for the jurors. Did he betray not only the citizens of his vast district but also clients of his insurance agency by taking money that was supposed to be for premiums and using it to finance his House race in 2002, as prosecutors maintain? Did he also orchestrate a land swap involving federal terrain, to the benefit of a real estate developer who owed him money, as the prosecutors further contend?
Or has Renzi been the victim of over-zealous government agents and political enemies, as the defense has insisted?
If the Public Integrity Section scores a victory over Renzi, it may go a long way toward exorcising the memories of the botched Ted Stevens case, in which the once-powerful Alaska Republican lost his Senate seat while federal charges were hanging over him. But there were so many prosecutorial missteps, which an outside investigator termed “astonishing,” that Attorney General Eric Holder later moved to dismiss the charges. One prosecutor who came under fire took his own life.
And the case of John Edwards ended in a mistrial amid a general impression that he was guilty of behaving badly as a husband but was not guilty of political crimes (see Main Justice’s report.)
So far, the Renzi case has created a lot of work for defense lawyers and has cost the taxpayers millions. Now comes the trial. “This is just going to be fascinating,” Mike Black, a Phoenix attorney who briefly represented one of Renzi’s co-defendants, told the Republic. “I might even go down there just to watch.”