- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The House Judiciary Committee chairman yesterday said he’s crafting legislation in response to the Justice Department’s raid on a congressional office and plans to call the attorney general and FBI chief before the panel to explain exactly how and why the raid was conducted.

“The issues involved in this unprecedented action by the executive branch transcend any particular member,” Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said yesterday during the first of at least three hearings on the topic. He called the situation “profoundly disturbing.”

At issue is the Justice Department’s May 20 raid of the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat facing a criminal bribery investigation.

The nighttime search and seizure of documents in Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office prompted swift anger from top House Republicans and Democrats, who said separation of powers had been violated.

President Bush intervened in the tussle last week, ordering the case frozen for 45 days. House, Senate and Justice Department officials are now trying to work out guidelines for similar situations.

Some officials, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, have tempered their concern. But the raid was hotly criticized yesterday by hearing witnesses and House members of both parties, who demanded answers.

“Clearly at this point, they need to be held accountable,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, called the raid “sloppy at best but reckless at worse” and joined other Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union, in saying it’s just one of many examples of the Bush administration overreaching.

Hearing witnesses, including law professors and a former House member, said the Justice Department overstepped its bounds. They specifically criticized the department for failing to give House leaders adequate notice or consultation, barring House personnel from being present and searching through congressional files, some of which inevitably contained legislative-related material that, witnesses argued, are protected from use in a prosecution under the constitution’s “speech or debate” clause.

“The raid on this office represents a profound and almost gratuitous insult to a coequal branch of government,” said George Washington University Law School Professor Jonathan Turley.

Mr. Sensenbrenner plans another hearing on constitutional issues, and a third to hear from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse was open to a hearing, but added, “We also hope that Congress recognizes it would be inappropriate for a federal official to discuss the specific details of an ongoing criminal investigation in a public hearing.”

Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Mueller last week threatened to resign if they are forced to return the evidence they seized, the New York Times and The Washington Post reported. Mr. Issa said that if that attitude continues, his response would be “don’t let the door hit you … on the way out.”

Executive-branch officials have argued that the raid was made necessary by Mr. Jefferson’s noncompliance with a subpoena issued late last summer and that courts have ruled that the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution do not cover illegal activities taking place in a congressional office. The clause forbids the prosecution of Congress members for anything related to “speech or debate.”

Some House Republicans worry the raid situation might seem like Congress is trying to protect its own.

“A great number of members have been complaining that we should just make this go away because there is an election coming,” Mr. Issa said.

Both Republicans and Democrats yesterday stressed it’s a constitutional matter.

“I’m not defending any Jefferson except for Thomas Jefferson,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

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

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