Trial of former Arizona congressman starts Tuesday

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- Former Congressman Rick Renzi is about to go on trial in a corruption case that drove the Arizona Republican from office four years ago.

Jury selection begins Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Tucson in Renzi's trial, which could last more than two. Prosecutors have listed approximately 150 possible witnesses and 782 possible evidence exhibits.

Renzi represented Arizona's sprawling 1st Congressional District before declining to seek re-election in 2008.

Renzi faces 32 felony counts, including conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes.

Some of the charges accuse Renzi of trying to engineer a land swap involving public and private land to benefit himself and a business partner.

Another part of the case accuses Renzi of siphoning off $400,000 from his family insurance agency in Sonoita for his personal and political benefit.

Former Renzi business associate James Sandlin, one of three co-defendants originally charged with Renzi in a February 2008 indictment, also will stand trial with him. Sandlin is charged with 27 counts in the land swap part of the case.

The other two co-defendants, who both formerly worked for Renzi's insurance agency and were charged in only the insurance part of the case, were tried separately already. A jury acquitted Andrew Beardall but convicted Dwayne Lequire of some the charges against him. However, Lequire's convictions were overturned on appeal.

Renzi was already under a political cloud from the investigation well before he was formally charged in February 2008. That cloud prompted him to announce six months earlier that he would not run for a fourth term.

He finished out his final term before leaving Congress in January 2009, but he relinquished his House committee assignments even before he was indicted, making him a virtual non-entity in Congress.

The indictment alleged that Renzi in 2005 held hostage possible land swaps involving public land proposed as the site for a copper mine unless it included purchasing land that Sandlin owned in Cochise County.

According to the indictment, an investment group agreed to pay $4.6 million for Sandlin's land, and Sandlin then paid Renzi $733,000 for his help.

Sandlin had owed Renzi money from past business dealings involving land in Kingman.

The proposed copper mine remains just a proposal though several current members of Arizona's congressional delegation continue to push for a land swap.

In the insurance part of the case, the indictment alleged Renzi from late 2001 to early 2003 plundered the insurance agency's accounts to pay personal and campaign expenses and lied to regulators.

Pretrial maneuvering in Renzi's criminal case went as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices in 2012 refused to hear Renzi's appeal challenging prosecution evidence concerning separate negotiations the investment group and Resolution Copper on possible land swaps for the proposed copper mine.

Renzi argued that the evidence violated the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause shielding federal lawmakers' legislative acts. However, U.S. District Judge David C. Bury and an appeal court ruled against Renzi, and the Supreme Court refused to review those rulings.

Renzi won a different pretrial fight when Bury blocked prosecutors from using wiretaps collected by federal investigators.

Bury ruled that the government unreasonably intercepted numerous Renzi calls involving attorney-client communications concerning other matters.

Renzi could face more than 400 years in prison if he is convicted of all the counts and ordered to serve maximum terms consecutively.

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