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With Former Rep. Renzi Conviction, Big Win for Public Integrity Section
By Mary Jacoby | June 11, 2022 11:23 pm

After a nearly one-month trial in Tuscon, former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi (R) was found guilty by a federal jury today of 17 criminal offenses related to a federal land-swap deal in which he used his influence as a member of Congress to profit personally.

Rick Renzi

The charges for which he was convicted include conspiracy, honest services wire fraud, extortion under color of official right, racketeering, money laundering and making false statements to insurance regulators. Renzi, 55, was acquitted on 15 other counts.

“Former Congressman Renzi’s streak of criminal activity was a betrayal of the public trust and abuse of the political process,” acting Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Mythili Raman said in a statement. “After years of misconduct as a businessman, political candidate and member of Congress, Mr. Renzi now faces the consequences for breaking the laws that he took an oath to support and defend.”

The road to today’s verdict was marked by twists and some setbacks, including the 2010 reversal of a conviction of a former Renzi accountant by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

But today’s conviction was a major victory for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which had not seemed to recover its footing for years after the botched George W. Bush-era prosecution of the now-late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.

During the Barack Obama administration, the Public Integrity Section went on to high-profile failures in a trial in Alabama alleging public corruption surrounding a ballot initiative to allow bingo gambling. And it lost a much-maligned case against former Democratic vice presidential nominee and presidential candidate John Edwards, who was acquitted at trial of charges he’d violated campaign finance laws by asking supporters to provide financial support to his mistress.

Renzi conviction years in the making

Also convicted today was real estate investor James W. Sandlin, 62, of Sherman, Texas, who was found guilty of 13 felony offenses.

The Renzi investigation began as early as 2005, according to reports.  Evidence at trial showed that Renzi, then representing Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, in 2005 used his influence as a member of the House Natural Resources Committee to further the sale of an alfalfa farm in Cochise County, Ariz., owned by Sandlin.

Sandlin at the time owned Renzi $700,000 in future payments from their business dealings.

Renzi was accused of attempting to extort Resolution Copper Mining, which wanted the federal government to authorize an exchange of land that would allow the mining company to acquire certain National Forest land rich in ore.  Renzi’s 2008 indictment said he demanded that Resolution Copper buy the alfalfa farm owned by Sandlin in exchange for his sponsorship of legislation for the federal land swap.

When Resolution Copper officials balked, Renzi persuaded another group of real estate investors interested in a federal land swap to buy Sandlin’s land, prosecutors said. The $2.6 million from that deal was used by Sandlin to pay more than $700,000 to Renzi, the government said.

The government also presented evidence at trial that Renzi - an insurance broker before he was elected to Congress - diverted client’s insurance premiums to fund his first campaign for Congress in 2002. Renzi then made false statements to state regulators investigating the matter, the government said.

A federal grand jury indicted Renzi on Feb. 22, 2008.

Twists and turns

The Bush-era Arizona U.S. Attorney who began the Renzi investigation, Paul Charlton, was later one of eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Justice Department in 2006. After a congressional probe of the firings, evidence emerged that Charlton was pushed out by the White House because of the investigation he initiated of the Republican lawmaker. The dismissal of the U.S. Attorneys for apparent political purposes created a scandal in Washington that eventually led to the resignation of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

In 2010, the Justice Department won a conviction at trial a former accountant to Renzi on embezzlement charges related to the case against the congressman. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last year threw out the conviction.

Renzi also sought unsuccessfully to argue his prosecution was precluded under the speech or debate clause of the Constitution protecting lawmakers from being charged for conduct related to their official duties. But the Ninth Circuit in 2011 rejected his argument, saying the crux of the charges against Renzi involved his negotiations for future legislative action, which isn’t protected.

U. S. District Judge David C. Bury is scheduled to sentence Renzi on Aug. 19.

The prosecution was handled by Trial Attorneys David Harbach and Sean Mulryne of the Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Gary Restaino and James Knapp of the District of Arizona.

Renzi was represented by Reid Weingarten and Brian Heberlig of Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington.

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