A big time mining venture, Resolution Copper Company, wants a parcel of land an hour east of Phoenix so it can mine the vein of copper that lies beneath it. Renzi offered to help them gain Congressional approval for a land swap that would give them that parcel of land, in exchange for some other pieces of land that would be preserved or used to decrease water consumption in the area. Only, Renzi wanted to throw in a little goodie for himself--he asked Resolution to buy an alfalfa field he owned to include it in the swap. The field was later purchased by another group (with ties to Bruce Babbitt) for $4 million dollars, just two years after it was purchased for $1 million.
Of course there's more to it--the process of bringing in a partner to launder Renzi's interest in the alfalfa field.
Public records show that Mr. Sandlin and Mr. Renzi became business partners in 2001, when Mr. Sandlin bought shares of Fountain Realty & Development, one of Mr. Renzi's companies. In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Sandlin paid his partner between $1 million and $5 million for Mr. Renzi's stake in that business, according to House financial-disclosure records.
In 2004, a Federal Election Commission audit found that Mr. Renzi had received a total of $369,000 in illegal corporate funds from Fountain in the 2002 election cycle. It found that Fountain had shifted $131,000 of this through Mr. Renzi's personal accounts to the Renzi for Congress campaign account -- and that at least $70,000 of it was put back into Mr. Renzi's personal account.
Mr. Sandlin bought the alfalfa field in 2003 for about $1 million, land records show. The farmland, more than a mile wide, with mountains rising on two sides, lies fallow today.
One focus of the FBI's current investigation is whether Mr. Renzi profited from the sale of Mr. Sandlin's land to the Petrified Forest group, people close to the case say. Federal investigators have been asking questions about a May 2005 payment of $200,000 from Mr. Sandlin to Mr. Renzi, which was sent the same day that Mr. Sandlin received the first payment from the Petrified Forest group, these people say. The payment went to a wine company owned by Mr. Renzi, which was sold to his father days later, public records show.
And then there's the part that Renzi probably wasn't counting on--the fact that the mining company wouldn't bite on his apparent request for a bribe--and that they would CYA very carefully on the matter.
Resolution executives refused. For starters, they thought the land was overpriced, people close to the deal say. More troubling, they discovered it was owned by Mr. Renzi's former business partner, these people say.
Bruno Hegner, who was Resolution's president when Mr. Renzi proposed that the company buy the alfalfa field, was so troubled by the incident that he wrote a letter detailing what happened and mailed it to himself, people close to the case said. He wanted a postmarked record of what occurred, these people say. That letter is now in the hands of the FBI, they say.
Two more details. First, we learn that though Renzi has stepped down from the House Intelligence Committee, he has not stepped down from the Natural Resources Committee, which oversees these kind of land swap deals:
Mr. Renzi continues to serve on the House Natural Resources Committee, which handles land-swap legislation.
And, lurking behind the scam, is the firing of Paul Charlton as US Attorney. In the Senate hearing the other day, Alberto Gonzales offered no good answer for why Charlton was fired. He claimed only that Charlton resisted Gonzales' judgement on a death penalty case and that he used poor judgment in his efforts to implement taped confessions for investigations in his district. News of the Renzi investigation first got leaked in October, just before the election. And this scam involves a significant Native American interest (one of the commonalities among several of the fired USAs)--the San Carlos Apache Tribe opposes the mining project because it endangers some of their cultural heritage areas.