Corruption Junction

Raise a talon if any of you birds of paradise are even mildly surprised that Republican Representative Rick Renzi's name is smack dab in the middle of Gonzales-gate — you know, the ethical firestorm over the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' Justice Department? The embattled Gonzales may be gone by the time the ink on The Bird's column dries, but the sleaze trail left behind by Renzi's tenure in office always seems as freshly slick as the congressman's Pepsodent smile.

The current brouhaha involves the axing of Arizona's U.S. attorney, Paul Charlton, a respected prosecutor who toiled for the U.S. Attorney's office here 10 years before George W. Bush appointed him to run it in 2001. Charlton and seven other federal prosecutors resigned en masse December 7 as part of a purge by the Bush administration. Initially, the Bushies claimed performance issues led to the firings. But as more Justice Department documents have been released, it has become clear as a spring Phoenix day that the bloodletting was political, and that the aim of it may have been, in part, to shield Republican interests from inquiries executed by those same eight U.S. attorneys.

Just whom was Charlton investigating around the time internal Justice Department e-mails pinpointed the veteran prosecutor as someone "we should now consider pushing out"? None other than AZ First Congressional District scumboy Tricky Ricky Renzi.

Seems the Republican Charlton finds public corruption as loathsome as does this merciless magpie and had begun quietly looking into Renzi's efforts to aid a former business partner in a suspicious land-swap deal. Unaware of Charlton's inquiry, New Times reporter Sarah Fenske broke the news last October that Renzi had pushed legislation benefiting campaign contributor and palsy-walsy James Sandlin ("Deal Breaker," October 12, 2006).

A big-shot Texas developer with large land holdings in the Zona, Sandlin helped finance Tricky Ricky's first congressional campaign to the tune of $200,000 in cash by buying half-interest in Renzi's land-development firm. Renzi quickly plowed that money into his campaign coffers, a move the Federal Elections Commission later dubbed "impermissible."

But Tricky Ricky's not one to let a little FEC chastisement prevent him from greasing the skids for a bud. As Fenske said in her story, Renzi suggested to two different real estate investment groups that they check out a piece of land Sandlin was trying to sell along the San Pedro River. The investors wanted Renzi's assistance in a complicated land swap, in which they would buy environmentally sensitive acreage on behalf of the government in exchange for land rights the government owns. Renzi, of course, figured his crony Sandlin had land in which the real estate boys would be interested.

Now, this crafty carrier pigeon knows land swaps will make your noggin hurt trying to follow 'em, but the bottom line is that Renzi was allegedly putting together a deal, using his Congressional influence, that would ultimately benefit his chum. In 2005, Renzi publicly announced that he would be introducing legislation to include Sandlin's acreage in a land swap. Thereafter, the investors bought Sandlin's property, netting Sandlin a $3 million profit. Later, Tricky Ricky came down with a case of the scruples, he told Fenske, after he heard that a Washington lobbyist had complained of the Sandlin connection. So he pulled out of the transaction and never did introduce that land swap legislation.

Hey, it's all good. Long as Renzi's boy Sandlin made a buck, what difference does a lil' wheelin' and dealin' make, since Renzi's bill never reached the House floor? Well, 'cept for the suckers who took Renzi's tip and procured Sandlin's parcel. They tried to sell it back to Sandlin, but he wasn't buying. That Sandlin, he wasn't born in a pumpkin patch, ya know?

All this is what Dudley Do-Right Charlton was investigating when he was shitcanned by Gonzales. Coinkydink? Well, Dubya and the Republicans have spent a lot of time and effort keeping Renzi in office, through Presidential campaign stops, fundraisers and whatnot. Seems logical that they might wanna protect his mangy hide, but perhaps there were other reasons.

"Bush's brain," a.k.a. Karl Rove, has already gone on the record saying Charlton was whacked because he didn't aggressively push for the death penalty. And there were reportedly other complaints by GOPers on ideological grounds. U.S. attorneys do serve at the pleasure of the president. But if Charlton was fired to protect Renzi, that could constitute obstruction of justice.

The Bird rang former Attorney General Grant Woods, who was retained by Renzi after Fenske's New Times story hit. Woods is also pals with Charlton and is a fan of prosecutorial independence. He quacked that he doesn't know if the Renzi inquiry triggered Charlton's ouster. But, he says, "if that took place, it was wrong. And I'm sure Congressman Renzi would see it that way, too."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons