Federal prosecutors say an appeals court should not toss out the extortion indictment of former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) based on concerns about the constitutional separation of powers.
Renzi's case, which hasn’t gone to trial, is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. His lawyers, led by Steptoe & Johnson partner Reid Weingarten, argue that the indictment violates the U.S. Constitution’s speech or debate clause because it’s a case of executive-branch prosecutors intruding on Renzi’s “legislative acts.”
In a response filed late Wednesday, Justice Department lawyers said the indictment should hold up. They said Renzi’s lawyers — who have the backing of lawyers for the U.S. House of Representatives — have a “fundamental misunderstanding” of the protections of the speech or debate clause.
The government’s case against Renzi revolves around the congressional approval that is required for government land deals. Prosecutors say he extorted money from companies that needed his help, and that their evidence includes a wiretap and interviews with Renzi's aides. Whether Renzi’s actions related to land deals fall into the category of protected “legislative acts” is at the heart of the appeal.
“[E]xtortionate acts are not legislative acts protected by the Clause,” prosecutors write in their latest brief, which runs 80 pages. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who heads DOJ’s Criminal Division, is listed at the top of the brief along with Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona.
The response ramps up a conflict that The National Law Journal reported on last month: the Justice Department’s attempts to make inroads against a 2007 D.C. Circuit ruling on the speech or debate clause. The holding in that case, involving former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), “simply does not apply to the facts” of the Renzi case, prosecutors wrote, and the Jefferson case’s “subsequent history” — including Jefferson’s conviction for bribery — “confirms its narrow application.”