A federal appeals court upheld the criminal convictions of former Arizona Republican Rep. Richard Renzi on Thursday, writing that “Congressmen may write the law, but they are not above the law.”
In the ruling, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected Renzi’s contention that prosecutors violated his constitutional protections of the Speech and Debate privilege.
Renzi, the owner of an insurance agency, was convicted in June 2013 on 17 charges of fraud, racketeering and public corruption. Prosecutors introduced evidence that Renzi misappropriated clients’ insurance premiums to fund his 2002 congressional campaign and lied to insurance regulators and clients to cover his tracks.
Renzi’s charges also involved a 2005 conspiracy to extort private businesses to purchase land owned by friend and business partner James Sandlin. In exchange, Renzi, who had a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee at the time, promised to support favorable federal land exchange legislation, the ruling states.
“The Constitution and our citizenry entrust congressmen with immense power,” the 9th Circuit ruling states. “Former Congressman Renzi abused the trust of this nation, and for doing so, he was convicted by a jury of his peers.”
The district court sentenced Renzi to 36 months in prison. “We are disappointed with the Court’s ruling,” Renzi’s attorney, Kelly Kramer of Mayer Brown, said in a statement. “We intend to seek further appellate review.”
In the ruling, the 9th Circuit rejected Renzi’s argument that prosecutors violated the Speech or Debate Clause, which provides that for lawmakers, “for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”
Renzi argued that testimony from his former district director, Joanne Keene, inquired into his legislative acts in violation of the clause.
Keene told the jury that Renzi told her in fall 2005 that “he wanted to put the brakes on” a land exchange because another lawmaker, Rep. Duke Cunningham, had been indicted on public corruption charges.
The 9th Circuit ruling found that Keene’s testimony, however, directly rebutted testimony elicited by Renzi about his reasons for backing off of his support.
“We conclude that Renzi’s introduction of this evidence opened the door for the government to introduce rebuttal evidence on this point,” the ruling states.
Renzi and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the United States House of Representatives, which filed an amicus brief in the appeal, argued that conclusion goes against a Supreme Court ruling.
The Supreme Court found a waiver of the privilege, if even possible, “can be found only after explicit and unequivocal renunciation of the [Speech or Debate Clause] protection,” Renzi and BLAG pointed out.
The 9th Circuit’s conclusion would mean a lawmaker waived his Speech and Debate privilege by introducing evidence of his own legislative acts—which is not an explicit renunciation, Renzi and BLAG argued.
The 9th Circuit, however, concluded Thursday that the Supreme Court addressed a congressman’s willingness to testify before a grand jury, and was distinct from the limited rebuttal evidence at issue in Renzi’s case.
Renzi also questioned the district court’s decision to prevent a former Renzi staffer from testifying about legislative acts by former Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe.
The proposed testimony from Kevin Messner, Renzi’s chief of staff from May 2003 to November 2004 and then later Kolbe’s chief of staff, concerned conversations between Kolbe and Renzi regarding the land exchange bill.
But Kolbe invoked his legislative privilege. Renzi said the court failed to balance Kolbe’s Speech or Debate privilege against Renzi’s constitutional rights to present a defense.
The 9th Circuit disagreed. “We conclude that Renzi’s right to present a defense cannot override the Speech or Debate privilege of another Congressman,” the ruling states.