Congressman Rick Renzi Inquiry Continues

Congressman Rick Renzi is under federal investigation in connection with his alleged involvement in a questionable land-swap deal. The Arizona Republican stepped down from the House Intelligence Committee after FBI agents descended on his family business. He says he has no intention of resigning from Congress.

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Republican Congressman Rick Renzi form Arizona is the subject of the subject of a justice department corruption investigation linked to a land-swap. Renzi has resigned from his committee assignments but he insists he'll be cleared of his legal problems.

Back in Arizona, the political verdict may already be in as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: The Renzi controversy began two years ago with a proposed land-swap that required Congressional approval. Resolution Copper Corporation wanted to start a new mine in Central Arizona. But the minerals are were on federal land so it offered to swap for private land. Renzi said he'd make that happen if Resolution bought a 480-acre alfalfa field near the army's Fort Watchuka(ph) in southern Arizona and stop farming it. The congressman defended the deal to Phoenix TV station KPNX as a way to conserve water.

Representative. RICK RENZI (Republican, Arizona): It was absolutely in the public interest. It was absolutely in the best interest of the state of Arizona.

ROBBINS: But the alfalfa field was owned by Renzi's business partner, James Sandlin. It eventually sold as part of a different swap for $4 million. That was 3 million more than Sandlin paid for the property a couple of years earlier. Sandlin sent Renzi a check for $200,000, reportedly on the day the sale went through.

Mr. GREG PATTERSON (Former Republican State Representative, Arizona): Politically, he's toast, and I actually put a picture of toast on my Web site with no explanation whatsoever.

ROBBINS: Greg Patterson is a former Arizona Republican lawmaker who now runs a political Web site. Rick Renzi has not been charged with any crime, but the FBI raided his family insurance business last month, and a grand jury is investigating him. Plus, he recently paid back taxes and a fine for receiving illegal campaign contributions in an unrelated matter. Greg Patterson says put together, it's a ruined political career.

Mr. PATTERSON: In a court of law, you are innocent until proven guilty, certainly. In a political environment, however, you are safe until proven vulnerable, and I think he has been proven vulnerable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBBINS: It's lunchtime, and folks are lined up to order at Bandana's Grill and Deli in Casa Grande, Arizona, a fast-growing town in Renzi's district halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

This is no scientific poll, but Mary Drew and Thomas Long's comments were typical.

Ms. MARY DREW LONG: I think he's a crook. I think he should resign. I'm glad I didn't vote for him. Is that enough?

Mr. THOMAS LONG: It's disheartening to have people like your politician, who's supposed to be serving the public and everything, getting in trouble -actually, it's just…

ROBBINS: A few blocks away, at the public library, Joyce Hyde(ph) had a contrarian view.

Ms. JOY HYDE: I love him. He's great.

ROBBINS: Why?

Ms. HYDE: Because he just - he's for his people. He's for us.

ROBBINS: Renzi did not respond to our request for comment, but he has said the $200,000 he got from Sandlin was nothing more than a debt being paid and unconnected for Renzi's support for the land swap, which, by the way, fell through when Renzi withdrew the legislation after criticism.

The congressman blames his current trouble on the Justice Department and specifically Paul Charlton, one of the U.S. attorneys who were dismissed in December.

Mr. PAUL CHARLTON (U.S. Attorney, Department of Justice): And to make that up and put that out means the Department of Justice is engaging in electioneering, and that needs to be investigated.

ROBBINS: Political consultant Greg Patterson says that defense is predictable but week.

Mr. PATTERSON: Well, you know, at the moment, lashing out against the Bush Justice Department is a safe move for just about anybody, and he has very little else that he can do.

ROBBINS: Which is also put the Arizona GOP in a tight spot. Here's party communications director Brett Mecum walking a fine line:

Mr. BRETT MECUM (Arizona Communications Director, Republican Party): The Republican Party will stand behind him until any new information comes out.

ROBBINS: Renzi says he's not going to resign, but in this swing district, the longer the investigation drags on, the worse it looks for him and Republican hopes for holding the seat in 2008.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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