FBI Raid on Lawmaker's Office Is Questioned
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
An unusual FBI raid of a Democratic congressman's office over the weekend prompted complaints yesterday from leaders in both parties, who said the tactic was unduly aggressive and may have breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), who is at the center of a 14-month investigation for allegedly accepting bribes for promoting business ventures in Africa, also held a news conference in which he denied any wrongdoing and denounced the raid on his office as an "outrageous intrusion." Jefferson, who has not been charged, vowed to seek reelection in November.
"There are two sides to every story; there are certainly two sides to this story," he said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "There will be an appropriate time and forum when that can be explained."
The Saturday raid of Jefferson's quarters in the Rayburn House Office Building posed a new political dilemma for the leaders of both parties, who felt compelled to protest his treatment while condemning any wrongdoing by the lawmaker. The dilemma was complicated by new details contained in an 83-page affidavit unsealed on Sunday, including allegations that the FBI had videotaped Jefferson taking $100,000 in bribe money and then found $90,000 of that cash stuffed inside his apartment freezer.
Republican leaders, who previously sought to focus attention on the Jefferson case as a counterpoint to their party's own ethical scandals, said they are disturbed by the raid. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that he is "very concerned" about the incident and that Senate and House counsels will review it.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) expressed alarm at the raid. "The actions of the Justice Department in seeking and executing this warrant raise important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case," he said in a lengthy statement released last night.
"Insofar as I am aware, since the founding of our Republic 219 years ago, the Justice Department has never found it necessary to do what it did Saturday night, crossing this Separation of Powers line, in order to successfully prosecute corruption by Members of Congress," he said. "Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that "members of Congress must obey the law and cooperate fully with any criminal investigation" but that "Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with Constitutional protections and historical precedent."
Relations between the two Democrats have been rocky. Pelosi refused to appoint Jefferson to the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the 2002 election, and early this month she called for an investigation of his case by the House ethics committee. Last week, the committee announced it would investigate Jefferson and Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who is also the subject of a federal corruption probe.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, asked about the raid during an unrelated news conference in Washington, declined to discuss the case in detail but said "the executive branch intends to work with the Congress to allay" any concerns.
"I will admit that these were unusual steps that were taken in response to an unusual set of circumstances," he said. "I'll just say that."
About 15 FBI agents, wearing suits, entered Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building about 7:15 p.m. Saturday and left about 1 p.m. Sunday. Authorities said it was the first time the FBI had raided the office of a sitting congressman.