Republican congressman indicted in federal probe of Arizona land-swap deal

The FBI conducted a raid in April on a business owned by Rep. Rick Renzi's wife.

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., was indicted on federal charges of extortion, wire fraud and money laundering stemming from an investigation of land deals in his home state and an alleged payment in return for the lawmaker's influence, the U.S. attorney's office in Arizona said Friday.

The 26-page indictment accused Renzi and two former business partners of conspiring to sell land that buyers could swap for federal property. The sale netted $4.5 million for one of the associates, the government said. The FBI conducted a raid in April on a business owned by Renzi's wife, leading to his decision to step down from the Intelligence, Natural Resources and Financial Services committees. Renzi previously announced he would not run for another term and would work to clear his name.

The indictment claims Renzi and former business partner James Sandlin concealed a payoff of at least $733,000 to the lawmaker in return for him using his influence on the Natural Resources Committee to push through land swaps. "Renzi was having financial difficulty throughout 2005 and needed a substantial infusion of funds to keep his insurance business solvent and to maintain his personal lifestyle," says the indictment.

"Congressman Renzi did nothing wrong," his attorney, Reid Weingarten, said in a statement that suggested the Justice Department "may have allowed the investigation to have been influenced by political considerations." The statement also criticized the department for announcing the charges just hours after the lawmaker buried his father. Renzi will be arraigned March 6 in Tucson.

The indictment creates problems for House Republicans looking to distance themselves from ethics problems that helped cost them control of the House in the 2006 elections. If Renzi resigns to fight the charges, state law requires a special primary to be held 75 to 105 days from the day the seat becomes vacant, followed by a general election 35 to 45 days later. The Phoenix-area district looks ripe for a Democratic takeover given the indictment and problems the GOP has had in finding a candidate for the seat. President Bush carried the district by 8 points in 2004.

The area is becoming more diverse with a growing population of Native Americans and Hispanics. Democrats have recruited state Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick to run for the seat. She is in a good position for a special-election run with almost $300,000 in cash on hand. Several potential GOP candidates passed on a run, leaving Arizona Mining Association president Sydney Hay in the race. State Rep. Bill Konopnicki decided not to run, but state GOP sources say he is reconsidering.