By Dan Eggen and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
The FBI is investigating allegations that Jefferson, acting as a member of Congress, took hundreds of thousand of dollars in bribes to promote high-tech business ventures in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana. Two people -- Brett Pfeffer and Vernon L. Jackson -- have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote iGate Inc., a Louisville-based company that was marketing Internet and cable television technology in Africa.
Jefferson and his wife, Andrea, are targets of the investigation, and the government is moving closer to deciding whether to indict, according to those familiar with the probe.
Legal experts were divided on the legality and propriety of the FBI's raid, but many said that it could raise serious evidentiary problems for prosecutors at trial. In scores of cases of alleged congressional wrongdoing, federal prosecutors and FBI agents have most commonly sought to issue subpoenas for documents rather than conducting an impromptu raid on congressional property, experts said.
At issue is the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution -- language intended to shield lawmakers from intimidation by the executive branch. Historically, courts have interpreted the clause broadly, legal experts said.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in an e-mail to colleagues with the subject line "on the edge of a constitutional confrontation," called the Saturday night raid "the most blatant violation of the Constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime." He urged President Bush to discipline or fire "whoever exhibited this extraordinary violation."
Many legal experts and defense lawyers agreed with Gingrich. Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor who served as solicitor and deputy general counsel of the House for 11 years, called the raid "an intimidating tactic that has never before been used against the legislative branch."
"The Framers, who were familiar with King George III's disdain for their colonial legislatures, would turn over in their graves," Tiefer said.
Washington defense lawyer Stanley M. Brand, a former general counsel for the House who has represented numerous lawmakers accused of wrongdoing, also questioned the government's strategy.
"This is really an over-the-top move, and it could create some real blow-back problems for them in the courts," he said.
But Viet D. Dinh, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration who is now a Georgetown University law professor, said that "the raid on his offices itself does not define a constitutional issue."
The constitutional privilege for lawmakers does not "expand to insulate everything that goes on in a congressional office, especially if there's allegations of abuse of process or bribery," Dinh said. ". . . The fine line is whether or not it relates to a legislative process or not, not whether they've raided his office."
The legal debate and protests acted as something of a diversion for Jefferson, whose political future becomes more precarious with every new development. He recently drew a Republican opponent, New Orleans lawyer Joseph M. Lavigne, who announced his candidacy in late April, and others are likely to jump in before the Aug. 11 filing deadline.
Jefferson's case also complicates what Democrats had hoped would be one of their more potent election-year arguments: that a culture of corruption instigated by former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and some lawmakers and congressional aides has infected the GOP, and that Democrats would usher in a new era of honest leadership.
"As bad as people want to say the Abramoff situation was, it didn't lead to any House offices getting raided," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Jefferson had taken a defiant and assertive stance in recent appearances, but he appeared softer-spoken and more hesitant yesterday. "There's a criminal investigation going on regarding this, and my lawyers have advised me not to discuss, and I will not discuss any of the alleged facts in the case," he said, wringing his hands as he faced the cameras. "That would be extraordinarily foolhardy to avoid their advice."
Jefferson said of his political future: "I expect to run for reelection, but that's a matter that's down the road."
John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly newsletter, says he is always surprised when politicians get caught in such acts of malfeasance. "It's not a very good reflection on the state to have your congressman accused of taking bribes at the same time Louisianans are trying to get money out of the federal government," Maginnis said, referring to the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Staff writers Allan Lengel and Linton Weeks and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.