A federal judge in Washington yesterday said the FBI’s search of Rep. William J. Jefferson’s Capitol Hill offices in a bribery investigation — which ignited a firestorm of protest in Congress — was legal and denied efforts by defense attorneys to have the seized documents returned.
U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan, in a 28-page opinion, described the “facts and questions of law presented” by the May 20 weekend raid on the Louisiana Democrat’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.”
Judge Hogan set aside complaints by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who vigorously argued that the seizure of legislative papers from Mr. Jefferson’s office violated the legislative branch’s independence and protections afforded members by the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution.
In a rare joint press release at the time of the search, Mr. Hastert and Mrs. Pelosi said investigators should have warned leaders ahead of time of the raid, and both urged the Justice Department to return the documents.
Mr. Hastert did not release a statement yesterday, but Mrs. Pelosi said House leaders will work with the Justice Department to develop a procedure that would “maintain the balance” between the two branches of government while allowing the FBI to do its job.
“This particular search could have been conducted in a manner that fully protected the ability of the prosecutors to obtain the evidence needed to do their job while preserving constitutional principles,” she said.
“The Speech or Debate Clause does not make Members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility,” Judge Hogan said. “Congressman Jefferson’s interpretation of the Speech or Debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime.
“Such a result is not supported by the Constitution or judicial precedent and will not be adopted here,” the judge said. “The laws of this country allow no place of employment as a sanctuary for crime.”
Mr. Jefferson is the focus of a 16-month FBI bribery investigation. Agents seized several computer hard drives, floppy disks and two boxes of paper documents from his Rayburn Building office after an 18-hour search. The lawmaker was videotaped last July accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an FBI informant and agents also found $90,000 hidden in a freezer the next month in his Northeast Washington home, authorities have said.
In January, former Jefferson aide Brett Pfeffer pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges, saying the congressman demanded money in exchange for brokering two African telecommunications deals.
Mr. Jefferson has not been charged in the case and has denied any wrongdoing.
His attorney, Robert Trout, called the raid “unprecedented, unnecessary and unconstitutional,” adding that 15 FBI agents spent 18 hours “looking at every piece of paper in the Congressman’s office.” He said a bipartisan group of House leaders joined Mr. Jefferson to argue that the raid was in violation of constitutional protections.
“While a Congressman is not above the law, the executive branch must also follow the law,” Mr. Trout said. “We appreciate the consideration the judge accorded our motion for the return of the seized property, but we respectfully disagree with his conclusion, and we intend to appeal the ruling.”
In his ruling, Judge Hogan said Congress’ capacity to function effectively was not threatened by allowing congressional offices to be searched in response to a validly issued warrant. He said the FBI’s warrant application and affidavit established probable cause to think that evidence of a crime would be found in Mr. Jefferson’s congressional office.
“No one argues that the warrant executed upon Congressman Jefferson’s office was not properly administered,” Judge Hogan said. “Therefore, there was no impermissible intrusion on the Legislature. The fact that some privileged material was incidentally captured by the search does not constitute an unlawful intrusion.”
A House Republican leadership aide yesterday drew a distinction between the specifics of the Jefferson case and the potential for future searches, backing away from the strong position taken by leaders this spring that the search was outrageous.
“This matter is being dealt with in the courts, but we will continue to work with the Justice Department to develop future procedures,” the aide said.
After members of Congress expressed their concern about the raid, President Bush ordered the Justice Department’s solicitor general to take custody of the seized documents to allow Congress and the Justice Department to work out procedures to deal with similar situations in the future.
But Mr. Bush’s 45-day “cooling off period” ended Sunday with no compromise, only an agreement by the Justice Department that it would not seek to regain custody of the documents until Judge Hogan ruled on Mr. Jefferson’s request.