A constitutional privilege that gives legislators immunity for acts they perform while in office will not protect former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi from facing extortion, fraud and money-laundering charges.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause does not give members of Congress super immunity from criminal charges and found that Renzi's alleged misconduct falls outside the scope of the privilege. The court also restored a racketeering charge against Renzi that a lower court had dismissed.
"Despite Renzi's best efforts to convince us otherwise . . . the alleged choices and actions for which he is being prosecuted lie beyond those limits," Judge Richard Tallman wrote in the court's opinion.
Renzi, a Republican first elected in 2002 to represent Arizona's sprawling 1st Congressional District, had argued that federal prosecutors wrongly pursued corruption charges against him while he was engaged in "legislative acts" protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.
Renzi could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. His lawyers did not respond to calls Thursday.
The decision removes a major roadblock for prosecutors in the 3-year-old case against Renzi, who was indicted on the first of 49 counts in 2008, shortly after announcing he wouldn't seek re-election.
"We are extremely pleased with the circuit court's ruling in this matter," Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
Federal prosecutors have accused Renzi and his associates of embezzling insurance premiums paid to his Patriot Insurance Agency to fund his first political campaign before being elected in 2002.
They also say Renzi used his position on the House Natural Resources Committee to engineer a complex land exchange near Superior in order to benefit himself and a business partner.
According to the indictment, Renzi in 2005 promised to usher the exchange through Congress so long as it included a parcel of property owned by his partner and to block the exchange if it did not.
In the appeal to the 9th Circuit, Renzi's lawyers said federal investigators unlawfully questioned his aides, recorded phone calls and seized records. They said any evidence shown to a grand jury should be inadmissible because of the constitutional protection granted to lawmakers.
The Speech or Debate Clause, adopted by America's founders to keep the executive branch from using criminal prosecutions as a way to silence political opponents, immunizes House and Senate members for conduct arising from legislative actions.
A district court judge ruled that fraud and extortion do not qualify as legitimate congressional acts and allowed the charges against Renzi to stand.
Renzi's appeal drew support from some Republican and Democrat House members, who asked the court to honor the Speech or Debate Clause.
The 9th Circuit's three-judge panel found:
- Renzi's negotiations involving the land-swap deal were not legislative acts, and that his alleged promise to approve the deal was not "speech or debate" but rather a promise to support something through a future act.
- The grand jury would likely have returned an indictment against Renzi even if the evidence was protected under the Speech or Debate Clause.
- Renzi is not entitled to a special hearing to determine if the government used evidence protected by the Speech or Debate Clause or could make its case otherwise.