- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

FBI agents who raided Rep. William J. Jefferson’s Capitol Hill offices last year in a bribery investigation did not violate the law when they seized papers and electronic files, the government argued yesterday in documents filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The government said that although members of Congress have protection for some public offenses, they have no immunity from the execution of a validly obtained search warrant. It noted that the warrant sought only non-legislative materials.

“[The warrant’s] design provided for careful procedures to screen arguably protected legislative materials from prosecutors and, as implemented under orders of this court, it will result in no executive branch official having any further access to the seized materials,” the government said.

“The narrow issue presented is whether the incidental review of arguably protected legislative materials during the execution of the search warrant so taints the activity that a constitutional violation must be found and then remedied by the return of all documents to Rep. Jefferson — including documents as to which he has not asserted or cannot sustain a claim of privilege,” it said.

In an 85-page motion, the government said the execution of the search warrant was constitutional and procedures used by the FBI during the search were sufficient to protect Mr. Jefferson’s rights.

Attorneys for the Louisiana Democrat asked the court in February to order the Bush administration to return all documents seized during the unprecedented 18-hour search last May, saying the Justice Department violated Congress’ right to withhold certain information from the executive branch.

Mr. Jefferson said 19,000 pages of documents and electronic files were seized, all of which were covered by Congress’ separation of powers privilege to shield certain legislative material from executive review.

“The only remedy that will vindicate and protect the fundamental principles of separations of powers and legislative independence … is return of all of the seized materials,” he said.

In July, a federal judge in Washington said the search was legal and denied efforts to have the seized documents returned. U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan described the “facts and questions of law presented” by the raid on Mr. Jefferson’s office as “indeed unprecedented,” but said it was “well-established” that a member of Congress was as bound to criminal laws “as are ordinary persons.”

Mr. Jefferson appealed Judge Hogan’s ruling.

The government argued that the agents who conducted the search and the team that will review the seized materials for privilege will be screened from the prosecution team, ensuring that no privileged materials would be used against the congressman. It said Mr. Jefferson also would have the opportunity to assert the privilege before any documents were given to the prosecution team.

FBI agents seized several computer hard drives, floppy disks and two boxes of paper documents from Mr. Jefferson’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building. The lawmaker was videotaped in July 2005 accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an FBI informant, and agents found $90,000 hidden in a freezer the next month in his Northeast Washington home, authorities have said.

The Jefferson investigation has focused on accusations of conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud. He is suspected of taking payments to promote the sale of telecommunications equipment and services to Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations. The government is also investigating whether Mr. Jefferson planned to bribe officials in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Mr. Jefferson has not been charged in the case and has denied any wrongdoing.

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