Can the Constitution Shield a Congressman From an Extortion Probe?


Federal prosecutors recently responded to an appeal filed by former U.S. Representative Rick Renzi before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which seeks a dismissal of Renzi’s February 2008 extortion indictment. The indictment stems from a government land-swap deal that prosecutors say illegally benefited Renzi’s former business partner. Prosecutors claim that Renzi, a Republican from Arizona, used his seat in Congress to strong-arm people into land deals with the former partner, who then kicked back money to Renzi in complicated financial transactions.

Although Renzi’s case has not gone to trial, Renzi is appealing rulings made by U.S. District Judge David Bury earlier this year, denying a constitutional challenge to his indictment raised in six Speech or Debate motions. Normally such appeals would have to wait for the conclusion of the trial, but because one of Renzi’s motions involved the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause, Judge Bury’s decision is ripe for appeal now. Judge Bury’s decision is at odds with the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Rayburn House Office Building, 497 F.3d 654 (D.C. Cir. 2007), which held that the Justice Department violated the Speech or Debate privilege when it executed a search warrant on a congressional office without first allowing the Congressman an opportunity to protect legislative materials from seizure. Judge Bury reasoned that Rayburn carried to its “logical conclusion” would produce illogical results and would create “super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility and susceptible to corruption.”

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