Not So Slick, Rick

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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske