Renzi Trial Won’t Start Soon

Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:40pm

Despite a tentative trial date of April 29, Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) is likely to be out of Congress long before the case actually goes before a jury, several legal experts said last week.

Lawyers who have defended public corruption cases said the legal maneuvering that is likely in the Renzi case and the strong possibility that the case will involve constitutional issues that will have to be decided before the trial begins indicate that the trial will not begin until 2009 at the earliest, after Renzi’s already announced retirement from Congress.

The three-term Congressman announced last August that he would not seek re-election. In February, the Justice Department unsealed a 35-count indictment against him, alleging that Renzi offered to support legislation for a mining company in exchange for the company buying property from Renzi’s former business partner, who owed the Congressman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The indictment also alleges that Renzi skimmed money from his family’s insurance business to fill his campaign coffers.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona set a tentative trial date of April 29, but sources familiar with the case said that date was merely a placeholder that the court was required to establish in order to uphold the defendants’ right to a speedy trial.

Lee Blalack, who participated in the defense for former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) — who pleaded guilty in November 2005 to accepting bribes — said Thursday, “I would be very surprised if [Renzi] went to trial this year.”

Renzi’s attorneys filed a motion Wednesday seeking a delay in the trial, arguing that the government will be required to provide the defense with substantial amounts of evidence, including wiretap recordings, but none of this material “has yet been produced, and it appears unlikely that all discovery will be provided prior to the current trial date.”

The production and processing of the evidence could take months, said several lawyers who have been involved in similar cases.

“There is a lot of paper that is going to change hands,” Blalack said. In addition, there appear to be “complicated financial transactions that are involved in the case that may require expert advice,” which may lead the defense to seek extra time to evaluate the evidence.

Another lawyer who has been involved in corruption cases but asked for anonymity, said “political corruption cases take a long time.” This source said there are a broad array of motions available to the defense to dispute the evidence, to challenge the legal theory of the indictment, even to debate whether Renzi and his alleged co-conspirators should be tried together or separately. James Sandlin, the business partner who is accused of conspiring with Renzi, has already asked the court to sever the two cases.

Beyond these normal procedural issues, the Renzi case will almost certainly incite an argument over the scope of the constitutional Speech or Debate Clause. Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution states that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members] shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

Stan Brand, who specializes in white- collar criminal defense, points out that the Renzi indictment directly addresses his position on the Natural Resources Committee, and much of the premise of the case is built around Renzi’s alleged promise to pursue legislation.

“They have charged in essence a legislative act,” Brand said. This not only opens the door for Renzi’s lawyers to challenge the indictment based on the Speech or Debate privilege, but also raises questions about “what did the grand jury hear about his legislative status,” Brand said. The defense could make a motion to invalidate grand jury proceedings in which legislative material was discussed.

These issues would all be ripe for appeal, and the constitutional questions theoretically could have to be resolved by the Supreme Court before a trial could commence, which could push the whole case back by many months.

Blalack said the ongoing prosecution of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) makes the Speech or Debate issues more prominent. The Supreme Court is currently considering a Justice Department request to review an appeals court decision that found the FBI raid of Jefferson’s office violated the Congressman’s right to assert the Speech or Debate privilege over documents before they were reviewed by law enforcement officials. Jefferson has been charged with accepting bribes to assist private individuals attempting to do business in Africa; Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing.

“It is much more likely that you get into issues of Speech or Debate post-the Jefferson case,” Blalack said. Brand agreed that even if the Jefferson case revolves around a different set of circumstances, “it does reaffirm to judges that this is a very serious constitutional issue.”

In their request for a delay, Renzi’s lawyers have already foreshadowed their intent to explore Speech or Debate issues. “Since the allegations that form the basis of the public corruption counts involve the actions of a sitting Congressman related to proposed legislation and other legislative acts, Congressman Renzi anticipates complex motions … involving the Speech or Debate clause,” they wrote. “Defendants anticipate that briefing on these and other legal matters will be of significant benefit to the Court.”