PHOENIX - Federal authorities announced corruption charges yesterday accusing Representative Rick Renzi of engineering a swap of federally owned mining land to benefit himself and a former business partner and stealing from his insurance company's clients.
A lengthy federal investigation that had put the three-term Republican congressman under a cloud for more than a year culminated in a 26-page indictment issued Thursday against him and two other men. Renzi announced Aug. 23 that he wouldn't run for reelection in Arizona's mostly rural First Congressional District.
"Congressman Renzi deprived the citizens of Arizona of his honest services as a United States elected representative," US Attorney Diane J. Humetewa said.
The indictment's 35 counts include charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, insurance fraud, and extortion. Most of the charges allege Renzi, 49, used his office to promote a land swap to collect on a debt owed by James W. Sandlin of Sherman, Texas, a former Renzi associate.
Renzi, Sandlin, and Andrew Beardall of Rockville, Md., another of the congressman's former business associates, were to be arraigned in Tucson on March 6. Convictions on the most serious charges carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison.
Renzi has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Kelly Kramer, issued a brief statement saying the representative would "fight these charges until he is vindicated and his family's name is restored."
GOP leadership, however, immediately pressured Renzi to step down.
House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio called the charges "completely unacceptable for a member of Congress" and said Renzi should "seriously consider whether he can continue to effectively represent his constituents under these circumstances."
Renzi is one of 24 cochairmen for Senator John McCain's presidential campaign in Arizona. McCain seemed surprised when asked about the indictment at a campaign stop in Indianapolis, choosing his words carefully, shaking his head, and speaking slowly.
"I'm sorry. I feel for the family; as you know, he has 12 children," McCain said. "But I don't know enough of the details to make a judgment. These kinds of things are always very unfortunate. . . . I rely on our Department of Justice and system of justice to make the right outcome."
Renzi had been considered in political peril ever since FBI agents raided his wife's insurance business in the southern Arizona town of Sonoita in October 2006. He immediately stepped down from the House Intelligence Committee, and followed that by taking a leave of absence from the House Financial Services and Natural Services committees.
Authorities accuse Renzi of using his position as a member of the Natural Resources Committee to push land deals for Sandlin. Renzi wanted Sandlin to make money so the congressman could be paid for an earlier land deal they made together, the indictment said.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington applauded the Justice Department for holding Renzi "accountable given that his House colleagues refused to do so."