Indictments make good reading, and the Rick Renzi indictment unsealed Friday is no exception, assuming you like tales of greed, manipulation and public malfeasance that end with the bad guy getting what's coming to him. Justice hasn't yet been served, and the innocent can still claim the label until proven otherwise. But the gotcha excitement is palpable, once you wade through the legalese.
Renzi, an Arizona Republican member of the House of Representatives, was accused, along with alleged co-conspirators in the private sector, to have orchestrated a land deal that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars flow into his personal accounts. He even used some of the cash to pay off state and federal tax bills, according to the indictment.
Here's how the indictment lays it out:
The federal government owned the surface rights to a piece of land, under which lies a large copper deposit, maybe one of the largest in North America. A company owned the mineral rights but needed the surface rights to get at the copper (which, incidentally has been trading at an all-time high of late). The way to get federal land is to buy up private land the federal government wants, and then offer to make a trade.
Those kinds of transactions need the approval of the House Natural Resources Committee, which is charged with ensuring that any federal land bought, sold or transferred benefits the public good. It's also supposed to ensure that the National Environmental Protection Act is considered.
In this case, Renzi allegedly decided that he could have a business partner, real estate developer James Sandlin, pay back the $700,000+ he owed him by making sure that private land transferred for the mine was Sandlin's.
What follows is a series of back room deals (and mercifully, as I bet the investigators would say, some apparently telling e-mails and bank transactions) that ended with the $4.6 million purchase of 480 acres by an unnamed investment group. ("No Sandlin property, no bill," Renzi allegedly told one potential buyer; to another, he allegedly offered a "free pass" through the Natural Resources Committee in exchange for buying the land.) A good portion of the money allegedly flowed through Sandlin and his businesses to businesses and bank accounts controlled by Renzi.
Public corruption creates a cynicism for government and unfairly stains legions of honest public servants, said Alice S. Fisher, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division. These charges represent allegations that Congressman Renzi defrauded the public of his unbiased, honest services as an elected official."
(One question: Is this deal one and the same with another involving a copper mine that seemed to have the endorsement of major environmental groups, and even if the two are not related, does it call into question other deals Renzi orchestrated?)
Renzi has said publicly via his attorney that he is not guilty. He'll get his day in court.
The public interest, according to the indictment, was not a concern in the deal. A mining company got access to copper, a real estate developer unloaded a piece of land at a handsome profit, and a congressman saw his pockets fattened. The American public, which owns that land, got nothing from the deal. Until now, when the Department of Justice, which lost an Assistant District Attorney in Arizona in the Gonzalez scandal, has provided us with a good read. And the prospect of justice.
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