If politics creates strange bedfellows, there may be no better example than the federal corruption case known as United States of America vs. Richard G. Renzi.
Key Democratic and Republican House leaders have joined lawyers for Renzi, a Republican congressman from Arizona, in demanding that criminal charges be thrown out. In their view, FBI agents violated the constitutional separation of powers when they bugged Renzi’s cell phone and searched his office.
The lawmakers, who are members of the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, include Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, Republican Leader John Boehner and three others. They filed a 57-page amicus brief earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Tucson, seeking to suppress the government’s evidence and dismiss most of its indictment.
Put simply, the House members contend that investigators broke the law in pursuit of Renzi, trampling the so-called “Speech or Debate Clause” of the Constitution, which shields lawmakers from intimidation by the executive branch.
“The House does not file this memorandum to protect Congressman Renzi from criminal investigation or prosecution,” says their brief, “(or) to suggest that he or any other member of Congress is above the law. . . . (However,) the Justice Department repeatedly and substantially violated the Speech or Debate Clause in investigating Congressman Renzi.
“If the wiretap order and its execution are not declared unconstitutional,” the brief adds, “the resulting precedent could greatly increase the potential for executive branch abuse at the expense of the legislative branch.”
Justice Department lawyers have not yet answered in writing. But their position is spelled out in a supporting memorandum filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit watchdog group known as CREW.
“The Speech or Debate Clause was never intended to provide members of Congress with blanket protection from prosecution for criminal acts,” wrote Melanie Sloan, a CREW attorney. “In a country founded on the rule of law, the courts should not allow any one class of individuals to live lawlessly.”
Extortion, other charges
Renzi and three associates were indicted this year by federal grand juries on a total of 44 counts of extortion, fraud, money laundering and other crimes. Charges encompass several alleged conspiracies, including the embezzlement of funds from Renzi’s insurance agency and the funneling of that money into his first congressional campaign. But most of the counts stem from a federal land-swap deal and Renzi’s purported effort to coerce private developers into buying property from a former business associate who owed him money.
Prosecutors say the three-term representative abused his power and pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars when the real-estate deal was consummated. Renzi, who has declined to comment since charges were filed, pleaded innocent to all charges, as did his co-defendants.
Renzi, who did not seek re-election this year, faces a maximum 20-year prison term per count if convicted on the most serious charges. Trial is tentatively scheduled in March.
Meanwhile, defense attorneys have showered U.S. Magistrate Bernardo Velasco with motions to suppress evidence and dismiss charges. Arguments about the Speech or Debate Clause stirred the most passion, in and out of court.
FBI agents monitored and recorded hundreds of Renzi’s phone calls in October and November 2006. They also searched his private office in southern Arizona and questioned members of his staff.
Disagreement about those methods extends beyond the courthouse to constitutional lawyers and scholars from coast to coast.
Stan Brand, former general counsel for the House and an expert on corruption law, said federal investigators blew it in the Renzi case. “I think the government has a serious problem,” Brand said. “Are they (defense attorneys) raising a serious constitutional question? The answer is: Yes.”
Even if Renzi is guilty, Brand said, the Constitution treats legislative independence as a higher social good than the conviction of a corrupt politician.
“Blame the framers,” he added. “You can scream all you want that there’s a crime, but you can’t inquire into legislative activity to prove it.”
“That can’t be right,” protested Erwin Chemerinsky, law school dean at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s essential that members of our government not be above the law. . . .”