By Dan Eggen and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Justice Department and FBI officials yesterday vigorously defended a weekend raid on the Capitol Hill office of Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), arguing that the unprecedented tactic was necessary because Jefferson and his attorneys had refused to comply with a subpoena for documents issued more nine months ago in a bribery investigation.
At the same time, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other administration officials sought to quell a growing uproar among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, many of whom view the Saturday night search in the Rayburn House Office Building as a clear violation of constitutional language and case law protecting lawmakers from intimidation by the executive branch.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) complained directly to President Bush yesterday about the FBI raid, while House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted a constitutional showdown before the Supreme Court.
"My opinion is that they took the wrong path," Hastert told reporters after his meeting with Bush in the White House. "They need to back up, and we need to go from there."
According to one Justice Department official, the White House is sympathetic to Hastert's complaint and is pressing Justice Department officials to figure out a way to placate Congress. White House spokesman Tony Snow said: "We are hoping that there's a way to balance the constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch."
Jefferson, an eight-term House member, has not been charged, and he has denied any wrongdoing. Two of his associates have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in federal court in Alexandria.
About 15 FBI agents entered Jefferson's office in the Rayburn 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 agents confiscated a boxful of documents and made copies of computer hard drives, according to a Justice Department source.
Gonzales and other officials said the search was conducted carefully to avoid trampling on the constitutional privileges accorded to members of Congress -- including the use of a "filter team" of FBI agents and prosecutors not connected to the case who vetted documents to be sure nothing unrelated to the investigation or out of bounds was taken. Gonzales and the White House also said the administration had embarked on private talks with lawmakers about the issue.
"We believe, of course, that we've been very careful, very thorough in our pursuit of criminal wrongdoing, and that's what's going on here," Gonzales said. "We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Department of Justice is doing its job in investigating criminal wrongdoing, and we have an obligation to the American people to pursue the evidence where it exists."
Several law enforcement sources said yesterday, however, that a search of Jefferson's Rayburn office had been discussed by federal prosecutors and FBI agents as early as last summer, but that the idea was overruled by Justice Department lawyers. FBI agents conducted in August searches of Jefferson's New Orleans home and his Washington apartment, where they found $90,000 in alleged bribe money stuffed inside a freezer, according to an affidavit filed in connection with the Saturday search.
Jefferson's press secretary, Melanie Roussell, declined to comment and directed calls to Jefferson's attorney, Robert P. Trout. Trout did not return several phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.
In a news conference Monday, Jefferson repeated his denial of any wrongdoing and vowed to seek reelection in November. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) worked through intermediaries last night to try to persuade Jefferson to temporarily step aside as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, according to Democratic aides.
The attorney general's comments followed a series of sharply worded complaints from Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Hastert, who said in a lengthy statement issued late Monday that the search raised "important Constitutional issues that go well beyond the specifics of this case." Boehner yesterday referred to the search as the "Justice Department's invasion of the legislative branch."
"I have got to believe, at the end of the day, it is going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court," Boehner said. "I don't see anything short of that."
Democrats, whose attempts to focus attention on scandals involving prominent Republicans have been undermined by the expanding Jefferson case, have treaded cautiously for fear of seeming to support Jefferson's alleged wrongdoing. But, yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters that though he believes "strongly in the separation of powers . . . from the little bit that I know about it now, I'm not going to beat up on the FBI."
The FBI is investigating allegations that Jefferson took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his congressional influence to promote high-tech business ventures in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
Two people -- Brett Pfeffer and Vernon L. Jackson -- have pleaded guilty to bribing the congressman to promote iGate Inc., a Louisville-based company that was marketing Internet and cable television technology in Africa. Pfeffer worked for Lori Mody, a Northern Virginia woman who invested $3.5 million in the company, owned by Jackson.
Staff writers Shailagh Murray, Tom Jackman and Charles Babington and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.