10/26/2006 4:00:00 AM Renzi under fire Report: Feds scrutinizing land deals
By JOANNA DODDER The Daily Courier
Congressional District One Libertarian candidate David Schlosser correctly predicted in September that attacks between the two frontrunners in the race, incumbent Republican Rick Renzi and Democrat Ellen Simon, would get rougher as the general election nears.
Renzi said he warned Simon during an Arizona Republic editorial board gathering of CD1 candidates that if she went after his father, he would take off the gloves.
The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has placed Renzi on its list of "Most Corrupt Members of Congress" two years in a row. Both times, it accused him of sponsoring 2003 legislation as a way to help his father.
Renzi said he sponsored that legislation to help the largest employer in the Sierra Vista area, Fort Huachuca. Rep. Jim Kolbe said the legislation was in writing before voters elected Renzi, and when he was unsuccessful at getting it into law, he asked Renzi to sponsor it because Renzi was a member of the House Resources Committee. The legislation became law as part of a Defense Department bill. It limits the fort's responsibilities to preserve the flow of the San Pedro River outside its jurisdiction.
Renzi's father is a top official in ManTech International Corp., a major Fort Huachuca contractor whose employees made up the largest contributors to Renzi's campaign in 2002 and the second-largest in 2004. Kolbe noted that ManTech's contracts simply would continue at another military site if Huachuca closed.
Simon advertisements that link him to the CREW accusation about his father are a "complete, fabricated, disgusting lie," Renzi told The Daily Courier.
"You attack my family and it becomes very personal," Renzi said. "So it's gloves off right now."
Renzi followed with TV ads that say Simon was the president of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the group defended the North American Man/Boy Love Association. U.S. Rep. John Doolittle made a similar connection to his California opponent, who is an ACLU member.
The ACLU's Massachusetts chapter defended the Man/Boy Love Association's right to free speech in a lawsuit that claimed its literature led to a child's kidnapping and death.
"Renzi is desperately trying to draw attention away from his record of incompetence and corruption that landed him on the list of 13 most corrupt members of Congress," Simon's campaign manager David Flaks said.
Simon was a volunteer chair of the ACLU's Cleveland chapter, he said, and Simon is "disgusted" by the Man/Boy Love Association.
Schlosser also attacked the Renzi ad.
"It is the worst kind of political manipulation, and the accusations are untrue," Schlosser said.
Simon and Schlosser remember hearing Renzi's demand to leave his father out of the campaign, but they don't remember the "olive branch" that Renzi described to The Daily Courier.
"He did get in the elevator with me and said to me that I had better stay away from his father," Simon recalled.
"I don't know if that was intended to be intimidating or threatening, but I don't intimidate easily," the civil rights attorney continued. "It was certainly odd."
Schlosser said he was sitting between Simon and Renzi when Renzi gave his original warning to Simon.
"He had his finger in my face pointing at her," Schlosser recalled. "There was no olive branch there. He was basically trying to threaten her into submission."
Schlosser said it's "absolutely" appropriate to question whether Renzi's legislation benefited his father.
"I can't judge the accuracy, but I see a pattern of behavior that makes it abundantly clear there are questions that need to be asked and answers that need to be given."
Of course, it doesn't take a psychic to predict that a congressional campaign will heat up during the final weeks before a Nov. 7 general election.
But the heat in Renzi's kitchen noticeably increased late Tuesday when after anonymous accusations in an Democratic blog the Associated Press wrote a story saying the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona is investigating an unspecified Renzi land deal. The story quoted an anonymous law enforcement official in Washington.
A New York Times story quickly followed, quoting unnamed federal authorities or law enforcement officials saying that federal authorities in Arizona are investigating whether Renzi really did introduce legislation to benefit his father.
Then a Washington Post story Wednesday quoted three (unnamed) law enforcement officials saying both the U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI's Phoenix field office are investigating "two land deals," one completed and one not, related to Renzi's former business partner James Sandlin.
The U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI office in Arizona have refused to comment on the anonymous reports.
"We don't confirm or deny investigations of any individual," said Wyn Hornbuckle, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix.
The Sandlin connection
The Phoenix New Times magazine first published details about Sandlin and Renzi in an Oct. 12 story. It questioned Renzi's motives when in October 2005 he announced a plan to sponsor land swap legislation that would conserve 480 irrigated acres that Sandlin owned along the endangered San Pedro River. Sandlin soon sold the land for $3 million more than he paid for it three years earlier. Then Renzi decided not to sponsor the bill, after a lobbyist working on another land exchange project accused Renzi of trying to benefit Sandlin.
"I didn't want the appearance of impropriety," Renzi said.
Renzi has hired Grant Woods, former Arizona attorney general, to speak on his behalf about the alleged federal investigations.
No federal investigators have contacted Renzi or his employees, Woods said.
Anyone can file a complaint, no matter how frivolous, and the U.S. Attorney will investigate it to some extent, he added.
"There's only one reason why this would be leaked 11 days before the election, and that's to influence the election," Woods said. During his eight-year tenure as Arizona's attorney general, he said he heard all kinds of complaints during election season.
Any insinuation that she is involved in the alleged complaints is "absolutely, patently false," Simon said.
Pattern of corruption?
Simon and Schlosser say the CREW listing and subsequent news articles add up to a good reason for voters not to grant Renzi a third term.
"There have been repeated reports regarding Mr. Renzi's ethics. Rick Renzi was part and parcel to the corruption in Washington," Simon said.
"It's more common than anyone would like to believe that legislation is written to benefit particular interests," said Schlosser, who used to work in D.C. "Rick Renzi is demonstrably part of that system."
CREW also cited Renzi's repeated Federal Election Commission problems as a reason for Renzi making its list. At least one accusation involved Sandlin.
One of the two FEC cases is closed. For not disclosing some of his receipts in a 2004 quarterly campaign report, Renzi agreed to pay a $1,000 fine, appoint a compliance officer and have that officer attend an FEC seminar within 18 months.
Renzi paid the fine and said he completed the other two requirements. He said he hired former FEC auditor Nancy Watkins to be his compliance officer so he won't have any further reporting mistakes.
Another more complicated FEC case involving Renzi, however, has languished for more than three years.
The FEC completed an audit in that case in October 2004 but didn't release it until after the general election in November 2004, prompting complaints from then-Democratic contender Paul Babbitt.
At the time, Babbitt also wondered out loud whether Renzi would have won his first race in 2002 without using what the FEC audit concluded were "impermissible corporate funds" of $369,090 to help gain name recognition in a crowded field of Republican primary candidates.
Renzi said that was personal money he earned after selling his share of a company to Sandlin. Corporate contributions are illegal.
Renzi released an FEC letter to the public this past month that informed him it will "take no further action" and "closed its file" on the corporate contributions investigation.
But since other parts of that FEC investigation remain open, the FEC refuses to explain why it closed its file. Renzi said the FEC told him he's cleared of any wrongdoing, but produced no documents to back that up.
"It's not unusual for (cases) to take years to complete," FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said.
The continuing portions of that investigation focus on four other findings in the FEC audit, even though the 2004 audit states that the Renzi campaign fixed nearly all of the problems.
The audit says Renzi's campaign committee misstated its receipts, disbursements and cash on hand at for 2002; it didn't itemize 13 political action committee contributions totaling $20,745; it didn't disclose transfers of joint fundraising proceeds of $134,495; and it didn't adequately disclose the occupation and employer information for 200 contributions totaling $132,811.
The audit says Renzi corrected all those problems except for 31 percent of the 200 contributor disclosures.
Renzi did donate $11,000 worth of campaign contributions from former congressman Bob Ney to charity after Ney pleaded guilty to his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal. He said he hasn't given up the $30,000 he received from former House speaker Tom DeLay's PAC because DeLay's criminal case is not yet resolved. He said he won't give back money that one of Abramoff's clients donated because that tribal donation was to support him for his work to help American Indians.
Republicans now are leveling campaign reporting accusations at Simon, accusing her of failing to report off-shore assets. The Arizona GOP filed a complaint Monday with the House Ethics Committee. Arizona Republican spokesman Garrick Taylor cited the ex-wife of Simon's husband as a source for that accusation.
The Republicans also accuse Simon of failing to report an Ohio home as an asset in her FEC personal financial disclosure statement.
Simon notes that the disclosure forms specifically state that candidates don't have to report their personal residences unless they're renting them out.
Renzi employee issue
In its accusations against Renzi, CREW also cites issues surrounding a Renzi employee that Harper's Magazine wrote about.
Renzi is paying Patty Roe about $95,000 annually for her role as his administrative assistant, plus paying her about $5,000 per month to bring in campaign contributions, Harper's reported on Sept. 14.
Federal law and ethics rules, designed to prevent conflicts of interest, bar staffers from working on political campaigns from government offices or during government work hours. Congressional rules also bar senior staffers from outside income higher than $24,780 per year, but they define senior staffers as people who get at least $109,808 annually.
Renzi denied he is paying Roe less than $109,808 to get around the rules. He told The Daily Courier that Roe is one of two of his chiefs of staff that he hired so he could have one in D.C. and one in Arizona, so he can't afford the usual $150,000 salary for a chief of staff.
Renzi said Roe talked to the House Ethics Committee to make sure the set-up is acceptable.
Will Renzi debate?
Simon and Schlosser are criticizing Renzi for not participating in any public debates so far. They say Renzi's campaign manager Greg Derr came to a debate scheduling meeting without Renzi's schedule, then told them to set up some dates and submit them to him.
Simon and Schlosser have committed to debates in every one of Congressional District One's counties.
A Simon press release noted that, while the other two candidates participated in debates in Pinal and Gila counties Friday, Renzi was raising campaign money at a Prescott fundraiser with former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Renzi said he's already decided to attend a debate in Coolidge and hopes to join one in Prescott.
Simon and Schlosser have committed to a Prescott debate on Nov. 1.
"Perhaps he will reconsider his contemptuous refusal to debate now that the Department of Justice is asking the same kind of questions as his constituents," Schlosser said of Renzi.