- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist yesterday broke with the two top House leaders, asserting that the FBI was within its right to search the office of a congressman under investigation in a bribery case.

“No House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period,” the Tennessee Republican said. “I think there’s allegations of criminal activity, and the American people need to have the law enforced.”

In the overnight hours last weekend, FBI agents seized computer records and other documents from the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat. It was the first time in U.S. history that an elected federal official’s Capitol Hill office was subject to a warrant.

The FBI filed documents last week asserting that Mr. Jefferson was videotaped accepting money in exchange for helping set up business deals in Africa. In a search of the congressman’s home, agents found $90,000 in his freezer.

House SpeakerJ. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, a Republican, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California responded with a rare joint statement, protesting that the FBI had not notified them and that the search violated the Constitution’s separation of power protections.

Mr. Frist said he examined the provision closely and talked the issue over with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. He concluded that the FBI acted appropriately.

“I don’t think it abused separation of powers,” Mr. Frist said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which plans a hearing tomorrow on the constitutionality of the search, said yesterday the FBI overstepped its authority. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. compared the search of a congressman’s office to a Capitol Police raid of the Oval Office.

“This debate is not over whether Congressman Jefferson is guilty of a criminal offense,” Mr. Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“He cannot use the constitutional immunity of Congress to shield himself from that or any evidence of that. But it is about the ability of the Congress to be able to do its job free of coercion from the executive branch.”

Mr. Hastert complained directly to President Bush and demanded that the FBI return the materials. Mr. Bush struck a compromise Thursday, ordering that the documents be sealed for 45 days until congressional leaders and the Justice Department agree on what to do with them.

Before Mr. Bush’s compromise, the showdown last week led the House leaders to threaten budgetary retaliation against the Justice Department, a senior administration official told the Associated Press on Saturday. Justice officials, including Mr. Gonzales, raised the prospect of resigning if the department were asked to return documents that FBI agents took from Mr. Jefferson’s office.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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