(CN) – Former Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona can’t escape federal corruption charges by claiming a privilege that protects lawmakers from prosecution for legislative acts, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
Renzi, a Republican who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009, faces 48 counts of public corruption, extortion, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy for his role in a land-swap deal in which he allegedly promised two companies legislative favors in return for purchasing land from a former business partner who owed the lawmaker $700,000.
Though the land deal went through, and Renzi got his $700,000 back, prosecutors say Renzi never introduced the allegedly promised land-exchange bill.
Citing a broad interpretation of the Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which generally relieves members of Congress from the threat of prosecution over the nuts and bolts of lawmaking, Renzi argued that the indictment should be dismissed.
Renzi claimed that his 2004-05 negotiations with Resolution Copper Mining and land developer Philip Aires, during which prosecutors say he proffered the quid pro quo, amounted to “legislative acts” and were therefore covered under the Speech and Deb/ate Clause.
The San Francisco-based appeals panel roundly disagreed.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in interpreting the clause, has at least since the 1970s “recognized a marked distinction between completed ‘legislative acts’ and mere promises to perform future ‘legislative acts,'” the three-judge panel found. “Completed ‘legislative acts’ are protected; promises of future acts are not.”
The panel agreed with U.S. District Judge David Bury, who had previously refused to dismiss the charges, that the negotiations “were not privileged because Renzi had only promised to support future legislation through future acts.”
The panel likewise refused to expand the scope of the clause, as agreeing with Renzi’s broad argument would have forced the judges to do.
“In its narrowest scope, the clause is a very large, albeit essential, grant of privilege that ‘has enabled reckless men to slander and even destroy others with impunity,'” Judge Richard Tallman wrote for the panel, quoting the Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in U.S. v. Brewster, which defined the clause’s limits. “Despite Renzi’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, we agree with the District Court that the alleged choices and actions for which he is being prosecuted lie beyond those limits. We affirm the District Court’s denial of relief on each of the issues properly raised on appeal.”