April 25, 2007; Page A2
WASHINGTON -- As midterm elections approached last November, federal investigators in Arizona faced unexpected obstacles in getting needed Justice Department approvals to advance a corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, people close to the case said.
The delays, which postponed key approvals in the case until after the election, raise new questions about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or other officials may have weighed political issues in some investigations. The Arizona U.S. attorney then overseeing the case, Paul Charlton, was told he was being fired in December, one of eight federal prosecutors dismissed in the past year. The dismissals have triggered a wave of criticism and calls from Congress for Mr. Gonzales to resign.
Investigators pursuing the Renzi case had been seeking clearance from senior Justice Department officials on search warrants, subpoenas and other legal tools for a year before the election, people close to the case said.
The Justice Department denied any foot-dragging in the Renzi case. "There was no such delay," said Bryan Sierra, a spokesman. Mr. Gonzales has said none of the firings of U.S. attorneys was related to corruption cases, and that the department is committed to pursuing such cases. Public-corruption staffing and prosecutions nationwide have increased during his tenure.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), a Judiciary Committee member who has called for Mr. Gonzales's resignation, said his panel is planning to pursue whether the Renzi case was a factor in Mr. Charlton's firing. "I'm not saying there's evidence and I'm not making allegations," Mr. Schumer told reporters Monday. "But it's something we should look into."
Complex investigations commonly take a year or more, and it isn't known what issues figured in the Renzi case. Many details remain shrouded in the secrecy of a Tucson grand jury that has been at work since last year. Court filings remain under seal. The precise sequence of events likely won't become public unless formal charges are filed.
But the investigation clearly moved slowly: Federal agents opened the case no later than June 2005, yet key witnesses didn't get subpoenas until early this year, those close to the case said. The first publicly known search -- a raid of a Renzi family business by the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- was carried out just last week.
Mr. Renzi is the subject of a criminal inquiry into land deals, among other things. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that federal agents are focusing on a $200,000 cash payment Mr. Renzi received from a former business partner in 2005 following a land sale that was to be part of a proposed government land-exchange bill.
A lawyer for Mr. Renzi, Grant Woods, has denied any impropriety and said that the money was repayment of a debt, not a kickback. In a statement last night, Mr. Renzi denied wrongdoing, calling recent stories about the investigation "conjecture and false attacks" and saying that "none of them bear any resemblance to the truth." But he said he intends to "take a leave of absence" from all of his committee posts, including the natural-resources committee and House intelligence panel.
Normally, local U.S. attorneys may seek court approval for warrants and wiretaps without Washington's approval. But the Renzi case -- like many that involve members of Congress -- is being handled jointly by the local U.S. attorney and the department's public-integrity section. In such cases, a senior department official must approve requests for wiretaps and warrants and other formal legal steps.
People briefed on the case said investigators in Arizona asked Washington for clearance -- among other tools -- for a wiretap of Mr. Renzi's telephones, a highly unusual step against a sitting member of Congress, months before Election Day. The wiretap eventually was approved, and was in place by late October, these people said.
On Oct. 26, just days before the election, two political Web sites carried the first public word of the probe. In subsequent news accounts, an unidentified Washington law-enforcement official described the matter as "preliminary." Few details emerged, but the leak disrupted prosecutors' wiretap.
Meanwhile, Mr. Renzi, first elected to Congress in 2002, was fighting to hold on to his seat. In September, President Bush hosted a fund-raiser in Scottsdale on his behalf. About the same time Mr. Charlton was added to a list of prosecutors "we should now consider pushing out," wrote Mr. Gonzales's then-chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, in a Sept. 13, 2006, email to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. The email is among thousands that the Justice Department has released in response to congressional inquiries into the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.
In November, Mr. Renzi won re-election to a third term, beating his challenger by 51% to 44%. A month later, on Dec. 7, Mr. Charlton was told he was being dismissed. Two weeks later, he emailed William Mercer, a senior Justice Department official: "Media now asking if I was asked to resign over leak in Congressman Renzi investigation." He asked for advice, but never got a response, according to the emails released by the Justice Department.
Mr. Sierra, the department spokesman, said it would be inappropriate to comment on any ongoing case. Generally, though, cases move along on their own pace, he said. "We don't operate under artificial deadlines," he said. "To artificially put deadlines or to rush the time could damage the integrity of the investigation."
Brian Roehrkasse, another Justice Department official, said the department under Mr. Gonzales "has never retaliated against a United States attorney for conducting or failing to pursue a public corruption investigation."
Mr. Charlton, a Republican with 16 years as a federal prosecutor, was named by President Bush in 2001 to lead the Phoenix office. Now in private practice in Phoenix, he has refused to discuss any details of the Renzi investigation -- even when asked about it at a March 6 hearing of the House judiciary committee.
Write to Evan Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org