Jun 292011

By Teri Walker–

Former U.S. Representative Rick Renzi is not able to claim legislative immunity to avoid facing extortion, fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Thursday.

Renzi, a former Arizona District One Congressman, invoked the Speech or Debate Clause from the U.S. Constitution in an effort to avoid prosecution related to alleged misdeeds associated with a land deal in Arizona and embezzled insurance premiums he purportedly used to fund his 2002 political campaign.

The indictment against Renzi said he offered a quid pro quo deal to two private parties if they would agree to purchase land owned by a former business partner of Renzi’s. In return, it is alleged, Renzi said he would support future legislation related to public land exchanges, which would be favorable to the two parties.

Renzi denies the charges against him, but through the appeal to the 9th Circuit Court invoking the Speech or Debate Clause, he claimed he does not need to defend himself against the charges. Rather, he asserted in his claim, the public corruption charges against him amounted to prosecution on account of his privileged “legislative acts”; that “legislative act” evidence was improperly presented to the grand jury; and that the United States must show that its investigation didn’t benefit from its review of “legislative act” evidence. He also said the district court that heard his case declined to wholly suppress all of the evidence against him that ought to have been suppressed due to legislative privilege.

In the opinion he authored for the court, Judge Richard C. Tallman said, “We recognize, as we must, that the Speech or Debate Clause is a privilege that ‘has enabled reckless men to slander and even destroy others with impunity,’ … But the Supreme Court has made equally clear that (it) does not ‘make members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility.”

Renzi was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and joined the House Natural Resources Committee (NRC) as a freshman congressman. The NRC, among other things, must approve land exchange legislation before it can proceed to the floor of the House for approval.

In 2004 and 2005, Renzi was approached by companies interested in land holdings near Superior. Federal prosecutors allege Renzi promised support of beneficial legislation to both companies, and eventually his Patriot Insurance company received nearly $700,000 in its accounts as a result of the land deal one of the companies made with Renzi’s former business partner.

When Renzi came under the focus of federal investigators, he was ultimately indicted on 49 counts. With the rejection of Renzi’s immunity claim, prosecutors are now free to move forward with their case.

In a separate order, the 9th Circuit Court also restored a racketeering charge against Renzi that had been dismissed by the trial judge of a lower court.

Renzi could appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.