An Arizona congressman temporarily stepped down from two more House committees on Tuesday and got caught up in the probe of the firings of U.S. attorneys, less than a week after the FBI raided his wife's insurance business.
Rep. Rick Renzi said in a statement Tuesday that he was taking a leave of absence from the House Financial Services and Natural Resources committees. He stepped down from the House Intelligence Committee last week.
Even as he insisted that he had been "the subject of leaked stories, conjecture and false attacks" about a 2005 land exchange, Renzi became entangled in the U.S. attorneys probe when his chief of staff acknowledged calling Arizona's prosecutor's office to discuss the matter.
The prosecutor, Paul Charlton, was one of the eight prosecutors fired by the Justice Department over the winter.
Congressional phone calls questioned
Brian Murray, Renzi's top aide, issued a statement late Tuesday acknowledging that shortly after the local media reported that the congressmen was being investigated, he called Charlton spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle.
"I called Mr. Hornbuckle seeking information about press accounts which appeared just weeks before Election Day alleging a pending indictment," Murray said in a statement. "I left him a message asking for information about these allegations, but I was called back and told they would not comment."
Hornbuckle refused to comment Tuesday.
Murray's disclosure came a few hours after Charlton related the call to House investigators probing whether the firings amounted to a political purge by the Bush administration. An official with the House Judiciary Committee said Charlton did not provide details of the call but said his chief investigator reported the call to the Justice Department.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said the committee has not received a report from Justice of that call.
The disclosure is one of several examples of phone calls made by members of Congress to federal prosecutors.
The Justice Department maintains the firings were not punishments.
"No U.S. attorney was removed to retaliate against or interfere with bringing or failing to bring a public integrity case," said Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
The Senate ethics committee has opened a preliminary inquiry into a call by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., to then-U.S. attorney David Iglesias, who like Charlton also was later fired. Iglesias says Domenici wanted to know whether indictments that would help Republicans would be returned before the November elections. Told no, Domenici hung up, Iglesias said.
The House ethics committee has also been asked to investigate a separate call from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., to Iglesias.
For his part, Renzi said the leaked stories and conjecture about the land deal were wrong.
"None of them bear any resemblance to the truth," Renzi said.
Law enforcement officials confirmed in October that they were scrutinizing a land deal that benefited a Renzi friend and business associate who was also a campaign donor. Last Thursday, the FBI raided a Sonoita, Ariz., insurance business owned by Renzi's wife, Roberta.
Renzi has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer did not return several calls for comment Tuesday.
Land exchange bill
According to state records and officials involved in the land deal, Renzi helped promote the sale of land that netted his former business partner, James Sandlin, $4.5 million.
The property eventually was to be part of a swap in which potential buyers could exchange it for land owned by the federal government. Such deals are common in the West, where the government owns vast tracts. Renzi had said he wanted to prevent encroaching development near the Fort Huachuca Army post and to protect the environmentally threatened San Pedro River.
But Renzi never introduced legislation in Congress to complete the swap for the new owners.
Tuesday, he said he had asked Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., to introduce the land exchange bill "so that no one can question the motivation behind the land exchange which I and other leaders from both parties have argued is critical to the future of Arizona."
Pastor said he would think about introducing a new version of the bill. He said he had no immediate plans to do so.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that he appreciated Renzi's decision.
"I know it was made with the best interests of the House, his constituents and his family in mind, and I look forward to seeing this matter resolved swiftly," Boehner said in a statement.
The raid on Renzi's business happened the same day that Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., temporarily stepped down from the House Appropriations Committee. Doolittle is under scrutiny for his ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.