FBI Raid Latest Question Facing Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi

April 23, 2007

Last week’s FBI raid of U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi’s family insurance business in southern Arizona poses another hurdle for a politician who has deflected persistent criticism that he’s unfit to hold the office.

The three-term Republican has beaten back questions about his residency, allegations that he channeled prohibited corporate funds into one of his campaigns and won re-election last fall amid scrutiny of a land deal he was involved with.

It’s not clear whether the FBI raid of Renzi’s wife’s business in Sonoita will hurt his re-election chances in 2008.

“He has been able to be on top of the attacks and respond effectively,” said Fred Solop, a political science professor and pollster at Northern Arizona University. “Whether he will be able to continue to do that (in this case) remains an open question.”

Law enforcement officials confirmed in October that they were scrutinizing a land deal that would benefit a Renzi friend and business associate who was also a campaign donor. Few details were available linking the Patriot Insurance Agency owned by Roberta Renzi to the land deal.

Renzi, whose congressional office and lawyers didn’t return repeated phone calls seeking comment Friday, has denied any wrongdoing. He issued a statement late Thursday acknowledging that the FBI had taken documents from the family business.

“I view these actions as the first step in bringing out the truth,” Renzi said. “Until this matter is resolved, I will take a leave of absence from the House Intelligence Committee. I intend to fully cooperate with this investigation.”

The committee has some oversight authority over the FBI, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Renzi volunteered to step aside “to avoid any unnecessary distractions on the panel and its critical work.”

Renzi’s accomplishments have included bringing in federal dollars to the once-neglected district, trying to improve housing on the Navajo Reservation and helping line up grants for a genetic research center in Flagstaff, Solop said.

Bob Grossfeld, a political strategist who handles mostly Democratic candidates, attributed Renzi’s rise to power to his strong political marketing and ineffective campaigns by Democratic challengers.

“Mr. Renzi has bigger problems right now that a strong marketing effort can overcome,” Grossfeld, predicting the incumbent will face a tougher challenge in 2008.

Renzi narrowly defeated Democrat George Cordova in 2002 to capture the then-newly created district covering a vast section of the state, including the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona and Casa Grande in the south.

Renzi, who at the time was a businessman who had relocated from Virginia to Flagstaff, had questioned the business acumen of Cordova.

Cordova, a venture capital fund manager, accused Renzi of focusing on lawsuits against a Cordova business venture to avoid confronting real issues.

Two years later, Renzi easily won re-election against Democrat Paul Babbitt, who had said the outcome might have been different if the public had known of the findings of an audit of financing for Renzi’s previous election race.

The Federal Election Commission had dropped an investigation into allegations that Renzi channeled prohibited corporate funds into his 2002 campaign.

Even as the news of the land deal inquiry surfaced last fall, Renzi was able to defeat Democrat Ellen Simon with a comfortable margin.

Republican Party Chairman Randy Pullen said the latest criticism against Renzi is a smear by frustrated Democrats, although he noted that he doesn’t know where the investigation is headed.

“I think it’s fair to say that it is not going to help,” Pullen said.

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