msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 12/4/2008 9:19:10 PM ET 2008-12-05T02:19:10

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who is retiring from Congress, pleaded not guilty Thursday to racketeering, making a false statement on a tax return and other charges in an alleged insurance scheme.

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Renzi has already pleaded not guilty in an earlier indictment charging him with engineering a swap of federally owned mining land to benefit himself and a former business partner. The new charges accuse him of collaborating with the former president of his insurance company by misappropriating insurance premiums of his company’s clients for his and others’ enrichment.

Attorneys for Renzi argued that the case should be thrown out because the FBI’s investigation violated the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause, which grants members of Congress protection for their legislative acts. Saying it was seeking to protect lawmakers’ independence, the House legal staff also filed a friend-of-the-court brief calling the prosecution unconstitutional.

Reid Weingarten, a lawyer for Renzi, told U.S. District Judge Bernardo Velasco that discussions over the insurance deal were “typical Capitol Hill negotiations and compromises and discussions and information-gathering that goes on on Capitol Hill each and every day.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Levchuk argued that Renzi “embezzled more than $400,000 of insurance premiums and essentially used it to bankroll his campaign. And this ultimately led to the issuance of cancellation notices of his policy holders in the summer of 2002.”

According to the racketeering count, Renzi’s insurance agency, known first as Renzi and Co. and later as Patriot Insurance Agency Inc., constituted an enterprise that engaged in and whose activities affected interstate and foreign commerce.

The indictment alleged that Renzi used the enterprise “as a conduit for other criminally derived proceeds, and that he concealed his financial relationship with Sandlin from investor groups, the U.S. House and the public.”

In a statement, Renzi’s attorneys accused the government of “piling on unwarranted charges ... to try to coerce Congressman Renzi into a guilty plea. It won’t work.”

The House counsel and Renzi’s attorneys contend that federal prosecutors and the FBI repeatedly sidestepped the speech-and-debate clause in investigating Renzi through court-ordered wiretaps of his cell phone, in interviews with three former aides and in consensually recorded phone calls.

Prosecutors maintain that Renzi’s defense “distorts the intent and plain meaning” of the speech-and-debate clause. They also have said they were not relying on Renzi’s legislative acts to prove their case.

The hearing will resume Friday. A March 24 trial date has been set.

By Lupita Murillo of NBC station KVOA of Tucson, Ariz., and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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