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Not So Slick, Rick

Fred Harper

Because even newspaper columnists are supposed to believe in that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing, I can't tell you that Congressman Rick Renzi is a crook.

But I can tell you this: Rick Renzi is a liar.

New Times readers may remember that, last fall, we broke the news that Renzi had planned to sponsor legislation involving his business partner's land. Although the proposed land swap ultimately didn't go through, Renzi's involvement allowed his partner to sell the acreage for $3 million more than he'd paid for it.

Here's the best part: Renzi's partner, Texas real estate developer James Sandlin, had helped to finance the congressman's first campaign. (See "Deal Breaker," October 12, 2006.)

So, Sandlin supplied big money to help Renzi win.

And then, it sure looks like Renzi used his congressional office to return the favor.

As Renzi admitted to me in October, he backed away from sponsoring the swap in question only after a lobbyist complained. A lobbyist!

That's how bad this deal was: Even the lobbyists knew it stunk.

But not, apparently, the voters. When our story broke, Renzi was locked in an expensive re-election campaign. He managed to ride out the scandal with TV commercials linking his opponent, Ellen Simon, to the child-molesting pervs over at the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

As it turns out, the allegation against Simon was completely phony. For a time, Simon had been the unpaid president of Cleveland's ACLU chapter. And though the national ACLU once defended NAMBLA in a free-speech case, Simon's chapter wasn't involved. (Simon handled only one case for the ACLU, and it didn't involve pedophiles.)

But for Renzi's rural Arizona district, the gambit worked. Hey, who are you going to vote for: the handsome college football star with big ethical problems, or the lefty female lawyer who once volunteered for the ACLU?

Even as Republicans everywhere went down in flames, Renzi won re-election by a pretty big margin.

But that was then, and now is not a good time to be Rick Renzi.

The feds have raided his wife's insurance business, looking for land-deal records. A grand jury has convened in Tucson. And everybody from the Wall Street Journal to the Arizona Republic is finally taking the swap scandal seriously. Better late than never, guys.

Two weeks ago, Renzi stepped down from the House Intelligence Committee. Last week, he finally seemed to realize the trouble he was in and resigned from all his committee assignments, including the one that actually regulates land swaps. The talk was that he soon would resign from office. (As of press time, he hadn't.)

It got so bad that Renzi finally resorted to Scandal Management 101 and blamed the media.

But the congressman has only himself to blame. After all, he's been lying through his teeth to reporters — and not particularly well, either.

Renzi's people have been claiming that, when he announced the land swap, he didn't know that his partner's acreage was involved. His lawyer made that claim to the Wall Street Journal in April. And I laughed when I read that, because six months earlier, in October, his chief of staff had told me the same thing.

What makes that so funny? Well, Renzi actually is on the record with a different story. A few hours after I talked to his chief of staff in October, Renzi called. In a heated 45-minute phone call, he copped to what is obviously the real story.

Renzi admitted that, yes, he'd known that Sandlin owned the land.

He knew it when he held a press conference announcing that he'd be sponsoring the deal. He knew it even as his partner cashed in his chips for millions of dollars.

If you ask me, he just thought no one would notice.

His only remaining defense is semantics. When I confronted him in October, Renzi's excuse was that he didn't suggest the land to the investors. They already had their eye on the acreage in question, he claimed, and so did conservation groups. He was merely responding to them — and if his business partner happened to own the land they wanted, why should that sour a good deal?

But Renzi had to abandon even that argument. The Nature Conservancy told me they weren't pushing the deal. They were neutral. And two different investment groups are on record saying that Renzi suggested the land to them. An investor in one of the groups told the Journal that Renzi promised their swap a "free ride" through Congress if they included his partner's acreage.

So much for Renzi's claim that it was all "their" idea. No wonder Renzi's lawyer was back to trotting out the lie that the congressman didn't know about his partner's ownership. Ignorance might have been Renzi's only defense.

 

Too bad Renzi is already on the record admitting that he knew better. Oops.


The really big scandal here, though, isn't that Renzi is a crappy liar. Nor is it that he used his congressional office to enrich a guy who helped him get elected, a guy whose finances were, at minimum, entwined with his own.

Call me cynical, but I expect that from politicians.

The bigger scandal is that land swaps are even permitted at all in this country.

As it turns out, most laws governing land in Arizona originate from the era when the government sought to encourage development and settle the West.

So, if a developer wants to get his hands on a piece of federal land, all he has to do is suggest another piece of land he can trade for it — and get Congress to sign off on the exchange.

That sort of deal-making may have made sense 50 years ago, when the feds owned huge chunks of the state and the rest was wide open. But times have changed: Arizona is the fastest-growing state in the union.

We can barely handle our growth as it is. We don't need to swap land to entice more development.

Every time the Legislature puts a proposition on the ballot to allow state trust land to be swapped for development, we've voted it down. Arizona voters rejected swap plans in 1990, in 1992, in 1994, in 2000, in 2002, and again in 2004.

You'd think they'd get the hint: We want to keep our public lands.

But when it comes to federal law, it doesn't matter what we want — not when people like Rick Renzi represent us in Washington, and not when we're easily distracted by the mere mention of pedophiles.

So, the feds still allow land swaps, and allow them under archaic rules that favor politically connected insiders.

Janine Blaeloch is director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, a watchdog group critical of land swaps. She says the Renzi deal is par for the course. She tells me that swaps can even make it through Congress without an explicit statement of which parcels are involved. It's the government version of a "player to be named later" — and you know that developers aren't throwing in the geographical equivalent of A-Rod after the fact.

"The developers usually come out of these trades just fine," Blaeloch says. "It's the public that gets taken to the cleaners."

The deals are supposed to include appraisals showing that the pieces being swapped have equivalent value, but there's a long history of corruption on that front. An audit released in 2000 by the federal Government Accountability Office found that taxpayers had been screwed out of hundreds of millions of dollars in unequal trades.

In one odious deal, the feds gave away 3,500 acres of pristine desert to a company building a dump. In exchange, we the people got land along the rail line used to transport the trash. Nice.

The shenanigans didn't stop with that report. In 2003, an Interior Department audit found that federal employees in Utah helped conceal the true value of land in various swaps by $100 million.

Arizona isn't immune. Take the deal in which mega-developer Don Diamond "donated" 632 acres to enlarge Saguaro National Park near Tucson. In exchange, he got a staggering 4,332 acres outside Phoenix.

I don't care how nice those 632 acres were. That just doesn't compute.

For years, we've known the solution. If the feds want to sell excess public land, they should do it at auction. And if someone wants to sell acreage to the government, they should do it in an independent transaction. Fair market value would at least have a chance.

But no one in Washington has the political will for reform. Republicans and Democrats alike would rather cash in than crack down.

Consider the swap entangling Rick Renzi. The five-man investment group that bought Sandlin's land, hoping for a "free pass," includes former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt.

Babbitt's brother, Paul, was Renzi's Democratic opponent in 2004. Not a year later, Babbitt and his partners inked their deal with the devil.

Of course, all the facts haven't come out yet. We'll need to wait for the grand jury to finish its work before we know whether this swap crossed the line from shady to illegal.

But Democrats making hay over this scandal ought to realize one thing: We don't need to wait for this probe's completion to fix the bigger picture.

As long as land swaps are allowed, there's going to be some schmuck who gets elected to Congress and owes a favor to a developer friend back home.

 

And if you think that congressman is going to stand up and protect our interests instead of helping his pals, well, Rick Renzi's business partner has some land in Cochise County he'd like to sell you.


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