Renzi Under Fire for Defense Provision

Posted September 10, 2003 at 5:13pm

Freshman Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) is pushing a provision in a spending bill that could help a defense contractor run by his father collect millions of dollars from the Defense Department.

Earlier this summer, Renzi added a provision to the Defense authorization bill that would allow an Army base in Arizona’s parched highlands to sidestep tight restrictions on water use for the base and the 38,000 local residents who rely on it for their livelihoods.

The restrictions on water use at the Fort Huachuca base threaten to limit the growth of the Army’s intelligence command center. By removing the caps, the legislation would permit Fort Huachuca — and its private-sector contractors — to continue to flourish.

One of base’s leading contractors, ManTech International Corp., is headed by Renzi’s father, Eugene, once a high-ranking Army major general at Fort Huachuca.

The Northern Virginia-based defense contractor has more than $1 billion riding on contracts from the base. Shutting down the fort would threaten those contracts, delivering a major blow to the company.

The provision cleared the House but is not included in the Senate version of the bill. The issue is expected to be decided in the next few weeks when Congressional negotiators hammer out a final version of the Defense bill in conference.

If Renzi’s provision remains in the final bill, “military contractors in the area will grow dramatically,” said Robin Silver, an environmental advocate with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Right now, contractors are restricted because there is not enough water to support more people moving in.”

Silver charged that Renzi’s actions amount to a “disturbing conflict of interest” because the legislation could help his father’s company.

Congressional ethics rules prohibit lawmakers from moving bills that directly benefit family and friends, but they are less clear when the legislation has indirect effects.

As a result, ethics attorneys said Renzi’s actions do no appear to violate House rules.

“It doesn’t seem to violate ethics rules, but it looks awful,” said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It’s one thing to vote on legislation that helps someone in your family, it’s another thing to actually introduce it.”

Renzi’s office denied that the freshman lawmaker is pushing the legislation because of his father.

Aides point out that the measure backed by Renzi is nearly identical to legislation introduced even before Renzi arrived on Capitol Hill by another Arizona Republican, Rep. Jim Kolbe, who represents the Army base at Fort Huachuca and the surrounding community of Sierra Vista.

When the House Resources Committee took up its portion of the Defense authorization bill earlier this year, Kolbe asked Renzi to introduce his provision.

Because Renzi grew up in Sierra Vista — when his dad was stationed at Fort Huachuca — he was familiar with the issue and happy to take up the cause.

“He went to high school down there,” said Renzi spokesman Matthew Ash. “He has a ranch there. He knows the area.”

Renzi blames local environmental groups for stirring up the “ludicrous and irresponsible” charge.

“The attempt to shift attention away from the facts and cloud the relevant issues through allegations of impropriety and attacks on my family, clearly displays the weakness of the opposition’s claims and their lack of substantive arguments,” he said.

He added that his opponents are attempting to “deceive and distract” the public from the underlying issues by “calling into question the reputation of my father, a man who fought for and honorably served our nation for over 32 years.”

Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) oppose Renzi’s efforts. McCain is a member of the House-Senate conference committee that will decide its fate.

Renzi did not clear his move with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct or consult with an ethics attorney before introducing the provision.

If he had, he likely would have been cautioned to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, according to several attorneys.

“Most people want to help out their pop when they can, and therefore he should let some other Arizona Member take the lead,” said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project.

Before Renzi’s ties to Fort Huachuca and ManTech became known, the fight over the provision fell along predictable lines.

Renzi argued that leaving the water restrictions in place could force the base to close, shutting down southeastern Arizona’s largest employer.

However, environmentalists charge that Renzi’s provision could sound the death knell for the local San Pedro River, Arizona’s last undammed, free-flowing river.

Renzi’s legislation stems from an agreement between Fort Huachuca and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in which Army officials agreed to limit the base’s use of water to prevent drying the San Pedro River.

Under the deal, the Army agreed to be responsible for mitigating about half of the area’s water use, including water use by private contractors and military families that don’t live on the base.

But Renzi believes Fort Huachuca should not be held liable for water use off-base.

“This common sense amendment simply states that Fort Huachuca will not be held responsible for civilian water consumption in the surrounding community which is beyond their authority or control,” Renzi said.

“The Army post is in danger of facing endless litigation over civilian water use, which could threaten the Fort’s future,” he added. 

ManTech itself employs less than 50 local residents, but it plays a central role in the communications and intelligence efforts at Fort Huachuca.

The defense contractor has $467 million in contracts at Fort Huachuca — with options for $1.1 billion over the next four years — including a $304 million deal to work on electronic warfare systems.

Eugene Renzi, who once was in charge of the Army’s command-and-control systems for the Pacific, is president of the company’s telecommunications and information technology division.