Arizona Congressman Renzi Pleads Not Guilty to Embezzling Premiums

March 6, 2008

Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi pleaded not guilty to all charges in a federal indictment accusing him of abusing his office for financial gain and for raising campaign funds by embezzling insurance premiums collected by his family’s firm.

Renzi was arraigned on charges including wire fraud, insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, extortion and money laundering. Two co-defendants also were named in the 35-count indictment, which was issued Feb. 21.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco ordered Renzi released on his promise to appear. He was fingerprinted and photographed by federal authorities and released.

Renzi, a Republican who announced last year that he would not be seeking a fourth term, spoke briefly with reporters after his court appearance.

“I have a lot of faith in my attorneys,” Renzi said. “I’ll be OK.”

Renzi, 49, is accused of embezzling $400,000 from his family owned insurance agency to help pay for his first campaign, and of using his office to promote a land deal that would financially benefit both himself and a former business associate. The most serious counts against him carry maximum prison sentences of 20 years.

Defense lawyer Reid Weingarten cautioned against a rush to judgment and said Renzi will stay in office. Trial is set for April 29, and Weingarten said the defense was “not going to drag our feet.”

Renzi has felt pressure to resign, including from House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Authorities allege Renzi and Andrew Beardall, a lawyer and business associate from Rockville, Md., misled customers and state insurance regulators while embezzling premiums from the trust account of the Patriot Insurance Agency Inc.

The agency run by Renzi’s wife operated out of a home in Sonoita, Ariz., which the FBI raided last April. According to the indictment, the money was used for Renzi’s first congressional campaign in 2001 and 2002.

Renzi and former business partner James W. Sandlin, a real estate investor from Sherman, Texas, are accused of extortion and conspiring to promote a land swap.

The indictment accuses Renzi of telling groups seeking to get the surface rights to an Arizona copper deposit that they would have to buy land owned by Sandlin to win required congressional approval for the land exchange.

After an investment group agreed to buy the land, Renzi received $733,000 from Sandlin, the indictment said. Sandlin had owed Renzi money from a previous land deal.

Beardall and Sandlin are set for their initial appearances today.

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