Convicted former congressman Renzi’s last-ditch appeal turned down

WASHINGTON – Former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi will serve out a three-year sentence in federal prison on extortion and racketeering convictions, after the Supreme Court Monday refused to hear his latest appeal.

Renzi has been in prison since February for his part in a 2005 deal in which he tried to get a mining company to buy a business associate’s land. In exchange, he promised to back a bill that would have benefited the company.

The Supreme Court will not hear the appeal of Rick Renzi, a former Arizona congressman convicted of multiple counts of abusing his office.

The Supreme Court will not hear the appeal of Rick Renzi, a former Arizona congressman convicted of multiple counts of abusing his office. (Photo by David Silver via flickr/Creative Commons)

Renzi had argued that the Constitution’s “speech or debate clause,” which is meant to let members of Congress fulfill “legislative duties” without interference, should have protected him from prosecution.

But lower courts disagreed and the Supreme Court on Monday declined, without comment, to hear his appeal. The high court also dismissed the appeal of Renzi’s co-defendant, James Sandlin.

Calls to attorneys for Renzi and Sandlin were not immediately returned, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona declined to comment on Renzi’s case Monday.

But a spokesman for Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization, welcomed the decision.

Dale Eisman of Common Cause said the speech or debate clause is meant to protect members of Congress from “overzealous lawyers,” not to let members like Renzi “hide behind that clause to avoid prosecution in corruption cases.”

House leaders had weighed in on the case, filing a brief with the Supreme Court as the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives – which consists of ranking members from both parties.

The group was careful to say in its brief that its main purpose was not to argue on behalf of Renzi, but to ensure “the courts construe the Clause in a manner that protects Congress and its Members in the conduct of their legislative duties.” It said the last ruling in the case, by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, did not do that.

Renzi, a Republican who represented Arizona’s 1st District from 2003 to 2009, proposed legislation to swap copper-rich federal lands for other property in southeast Arizona owned by a mining company.

Renzi pressured the mining company to also purchase land near Fort Huachuca that was owned by Sandlin, who owed Renzi money. The first company backed away from the deal, and when another firm took over Renzi guaranteed that the land-swap would be passed if the firm included Sandlin’s property in the deal.

The sale went through and Sandlin paid Renzi more than $700,000, court documents said.

Renzi was indicted in February 2008 on 32 counts relating to the deal, including money laundering, insurance fraud, racketeering and extortion.

He was convicted on 17 counts in 2013 and sentenced to 36 months in prison. Sandlin was convicted in 2013 on 13 felony offenses in connection with the deal, according to the Department of Justice.

Renzi, who owned an insurance company, was also found to have “misappropriated clients’ insurance premiums” to the tune of $400,000 to finance his congressional campaign, according to the circuit court’s opinion on the case.

Federal prosecutors said at the time of the convictions that Renzi’s actions were an “abuse of the political process.”

“Former Congressman Renzi’s streak of criminal activity was a betrayal of the public trust,” acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman said in a statement at the time.

The Supreme Court denial ends a seven-year battle for Renzi, who is currently housed at a minimum-security federal prison in Morgantown, West Virginia.