Deal Breaker

Congressman Rick Renzi and the very strange coincidence

Sandlin and his wife, Terry, each contributed $2,000 to Renzi's campaign. It appears to be the only time either made a political contribution to anyone. But indirectly, Sandlin's investment in Renzi's business infused the would-be congressman's campaign with a hefty $200,000 boost.

Sandlin admits that was basically the point.

"He was trying to raise money for his campaign, and at that point, it was his money," he says.

Fred Harper

That's all fine; there doesn't appear to be any law on the books barring a politician from selling land and funding his own campaign.

But then something very odd happened — something that may have been a coincidence, as Renzi insists.

Or not.

That "something" was 480 acres of land in Cochise County.

James Sandlin had bought the property in 2000, about a year before he says he even met Rick Renzi. But in 2005, after Renzi was well-ensconced in Congress, the land became part of a series of intricate discussions.

Tom Collazo, director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy in Arizona, says that two different groups of investors approached him about whether Sandlin's property would be useful in a "land swap."

In swaps, private citizens typically convince the feds to give them choice pieces of federal land — thereby opening it to development — in exchange for their donation of an ecologically important alternative.

Sandlin's land was on the San Pedro, which has been a source of great concern for environmentalists. The last free-flowing river in Arizona, it's been increasingly tapped out by businesses, farmers, and even residences ("Doomed River," John Dougherty, August 4, 2005).

The Nature Conservancy had previously attempted to purchase the property, Collazo says, but couldn't meet Sandlin's price.

But in 2005, Collazo says, it wasn't the Nature Conservancy driving the deal. Collazo says that both investors who approached his agency told him that they were looking into the land at Renzi's suggestion. And while Renzi's district does include parts of Cochise County, Sandlin's land falls outside its borders.

Even Renzi's own chief of staff, Brian Murray, acknowledges that "it wouldn't be proper for him to be involved in legislation involving Sandlin" because of their past business dealings.

Murray, who was not on Renzi's staff during the time of the land exchange discussions, told New Times that Renzi explained to him that Sandlin was part of a group of investors, and that the congressman didn't even know his old partner had interest in the land.

Property records in Cochise County, however, show that the land was in Sandlin's name at the time in question.

And Renzi called New Times a few hours later to tell a different story. He said that he knew Sandlin had ownership of the property — but that Renzi's only interest in pushing a swap was helping the San Pedro, especially since the future of Fort Huachuca rested on having enough water.

"The fact is, I didn't suggest to anybody that they get the Sandlin property," Renzi says. "The Nature Conservancy was going after this land before I became a congressman. Everybody knew that land on the San Pedro was valuable and that it would help the fort."

In the end, both deals fell through.

One group, Resolution Copper, was looking to swap land for rights to mine copper in Maricopa County's Oak Flat area. Spokesman Troy Corder confirmed the company was once interested in the property, but says it was not ultimately included in the bill proposed for Congress. (Renzi is the main Congressional sponsor of that bill.)

The second deal was stymied by, yep, the pygmy owl.

The investors were no novices. The group in this deal includes Tucson real estate investor Philip Aries, former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, and Guy Inzalaco, a well-connected Nevada-based land-swapper who used to live in Scottsdale.

A 1995 audit by the U.S. Department of the Interior, completed during Babbitt's tenure as Secretary, studied land swaps and determined that the government had been shortchanged by $12.2 million in four previous swaps. Ironically, two of the swaps examined in the audit had Inzalaco and his then-partners at the helm — which makes Babbitt's partnership with them after leaving office surprising.

Murray, Renzi's chief of staff, says that Aries and his group were seeking land owned by the federal government in Florence. A big-time Tucson developer, Don Diamond, had made it clear he wanted to build there, and the Bureau of Land Management was ready to let go of the property.

The Sierra Vista Herald ran a story on October 1, 2005, quoting Renzi. The congressman said that he would introduce legislation in Congress that very week swapping out Sandlin's land — thereby protecting the land along the San Pedro — in exchange for the land in Florence.

On October 7, Sandlin sold the property to Aries and his partners for $4.5 million.

Soon after that, though, Renzi says he backed away from the legislation. The Resolution Copper swap had stalled, thanks to opposition from Native American groups; Renzi said he'd heard Resolution's lobbyist was complaining that Aries and his friends were getting preferential treatment because of the Sandlin connection.

"It got back to me that Resolution Copper's lobbyist was saying that I was going to hold up the Resolution Copper bill, and I was going to push the bill in Florence because my business partner was involved," Renzi says. "The moment I heard that, I recused myself." The lobbyist, Tom Glass, did not not return calls for comment by press time.

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