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Renzi Colleague Faces Sentence

The recent conviction of the alleged co-conspirator in the public corruption case against Rep. Rick Renzi on separate charges in Texas could hand prosecutors a new tool in their case against the Arizona Republican, according to several legal experts.

A federal jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found businessman James Sandlin guilty June 11 on two charges that he submitted false statements to a bank in an attempt to procure a line of credit.

Sandlin faces up 30 years in prison for each charge and a fine of up to $1 million. A sentencing date has yet to be set.

That conviction and the potential punishment could help the government turn Sandlin into a witness in the case against Renzi, legal experts not affiliated with either case said Wednesday.

“The Justice Department has a lot of leverage over [Sandlin] right now,” said Brett Kappel, of counsel at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.

The Texas businessman is also facing charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and extortion in the U.S. District Court for Arizona, where he was indicted in February along with Renzi and businessman Andrew Beardall.

That indictment focuses on a 2005 mining deal in which Renzi allegedly required private mining companies to buy land from Sandlin in exchange for Renzi’s support of legislation allowing the government to swap land with the companies for the purposes of establishing a copper mine.

Sandlin was Renzi’s business partner, as well as a campaign contributor, and had earlier bought out Renzi’s real estate business but still owed the Republican about $700,000, according to a February indictment.

The Justice Department also asserts that after the sale of that land, Sandlin used the proceeds to pay Renzi $733,000, but the two men funneled the payment through other companies to hide it.

A trial in that case is scheduled to begin Oct. 14 in Tucson, Ariz., although wrangling over various legal issues is expected to delay the case until 2009.

Justice Department senior trial attorney Andrew Levchuk and trial attorney John Pearson are prosecuting both Sandlin’s Texas conviction and the Arizona indictment.

That could make Sandlin a prime candidate for a plea agreement, attorneys agreed, granting him a potential reduction in sentencing or fines and negating the need for a second trial. Sandlin had already filed to sever his case from Renzi’s and Beardall’s in the Arizona court.

Even if Sandlin and the Justice Department do strike a deal, however, the prosecution could still face obstacles in the courtroom.

“Witnesses who decided to cooperate only after they’ve been convicted are ripe for a vigorous cross-examination,” said Preston Burton, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who focuses on white-collar criminal defense and regulatory investigations. Burton emphasized that he does not know Sandlin nor is he affiliated with the case.

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