A Tucson jury this week convicted former Congressman Rick Renzi of 17 felonies related to his involvement in federal land swaps and sales that ended up benefiting contributors and business associates.
Renzi, 55, represented all of Gila County in the U.S. Congress prior to his resignation after his indictment four years ago.
The jury found him guilty on more than half of the charges he faced. The convictions involved conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion under color of official right, racketeering, money laundering and making false statements to insurance regulators.
Each of the convictions carries a possible maximum term of five to 20 years in prison.
The jury also convicted James Sandlin, 62, on 13 felony charges in connection with the same transactions.
“Former Congressman Renzi’s streak of criminal activity was a betrayal of the public trust and abuse of the political process,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman. “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.”
When first indicted in 2008, Renzi tried to get the charges dismissed by invoking congressional immunity for things said on the floor of the House.
Renzi also disputed the legality of the wiretaps of phone calls between Renzi and an attorney as well as with other lawmakers.
Trial testimony indicated that while representing the Congressional First District, Renzi used his influence to profit from the federal purchase of land owned by Sandlin. At the time, Sandlin owed Renzi $700,000 due to other business dealings.
Renzi told one advocate for the land exchange that he would block the exchange unless it included Sandlin’s property in Cochise County. When that advocate refused to make the deal, Renzi approached a second proponent of the exchange and again offered to support the exchange if it included Sandlin’s land.
In May of 2005, Sandlin was paid $1 million in earnest money. He then paid Renzi $200,000. Just before receiving an addition $1.6 million, Sandlin paid Renzi $533,000.
Trial testimony also indicated that from 2001 to 2003, Renzi committed insurance fraud by diverting client’s premiums to pay his campaign expenses while lying to insurance regulators.
OpenSecretsblog, a political watchdog group, posted that Renzi’s reported net worth dropped during his years in Congress, from between $2 million and $7 million in 2004 to between $1 million and $5 million in 2008. The blog also reported that based on campaign finance filings, real estate interests donated a total of $343,000 to Renzi and the insurance industry donated $254,000.
Court rulings have dramatically reduced the ability to track campaign contributions since Renzi’s effort to manipulate the system and conceal his financial connections brought him down.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations, special interest groups and political committees have the same free speech rights as individuals and that they can therefore spend an unlimited amount of money supporting candidates without revealing the source of that money — so long as they don’t directly coordinate their activities with the candidate’s campaign.