FBI agents violated Rep. William J. Jefferson’s constitutional rights when raiding his Capitol Hill office last year in a bribery and corruption investigation, a federal appeals court panel ruled yesterday.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit requires the Justice Department to return privileged documents to the Louisiana Democrat that were taken from the Rayburn Building, but does not include the $90,000 that FBI agents found in the freezer of the lawmaker’s Washington home.
It also did not compel the return of all documents seized during the raid, which Mr. Jefferson sought.
The judges said the agents crossed the line when they seized records without giving Mr. Jefferson a chance to argue that some involved privileged legislative business, rejecting a Justice Department claim that invalidating the search would prohibit the FBI from seeking a lawmaker’s documents in a criminal probe.
Mr. Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, said the ruling “underscores the fact that the Department of Justice is required to follow the law, and that it is bound to abide by the Constitution.
“We are confident that as this case moves forward, and when all of the facts are known, we will prevail again and clear Congressman Jefferson’s name,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the decision for upholding “the separation of power and checks and balances.”
“Let’s put it this way: The White House wouldn’t like it if we sent the Capitol Police over there to search in Karl Rove’s desk,” the California Democrat said.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department is pleased that prosecutors were allowed to keep records unrelated to legislative business.
The FBI targeted Mr. Jefferson in a suspected bribery scheme in his promotion of telecommunications equipment and services in Africa.
“The compelled disclosure of privileged material to the Executive during execution of the search warrant … violated the Speech or Debate Clause and the congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged under the clause,” said Appeals Court Judge Judith W. Rogers in the majority opinion.
Concurring were Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and Judge Karen L. Henderson.
In its unanimous ruling, the panel said that given the Justice Department’s voluntary freeze of its review of the seized materials and procedures mandated by the court in granting the congressman’s motion for emergency relief pending appeal, the imaging and keyword search of Mr. Jefferson’s computer hard drives and electronic media exposed no legislative material to the executive and did not violate the Speech or Debate Clause.
But it said the review of the congressman’s paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material and violated the clause.
In June, a federal grand jury in Alexandria returned a 16-count indictment accusing Mr. Jefferson, 60, of seeking bribes for himself and his family. He was charged with racketeering, soliciting bribes, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Mr. Jefferson pleaded not guilty in June to the charges. A trial date was set for Jan. 16.
The indictment said that from August 2000 to August 2005, Mr. Jefferson used his office to “corruptly seek, solicit and direct that things of value” be paid to him and his family in exchange for his performing official acts.
Two of Mr. Jefferson’s associates struck plea agreements with prosecutors, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and were sentenced: Brett M. Pfeffer, a former member of Mr. Jefferson’s staff, pleaded guilty to soliciting bribes on behalf of his boss and Vernon L. Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Louisville-based telecommunications firm IGate, pleaded guilty to paying from $400,000 to $1 million in bribes to Mr. Jefferson.
Court records said Mr. Jefferson was videotaped taking a $100,000 cash bribe from an FBI informant, $90,000 of which was later found in his freezer wrapped in aluminum foil.