By Shailagh Murray and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 25, 2006
In a rare bipartisan action, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded yesterday that the Justice Department immediately return documents that were seized when federal agents raided the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) as part of a bribery probe.
Noting that "no person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation," Hastert (R-Ill.) and Pelosi (D-Calif.) asserted that the Justice Department must cease reviewing the documents and ensure that their contents are not divulged. Once the papers are returned, "Congressman Jefferson can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department's efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights," the statement said.
The demands by Hastert and Pelosi further escalated a separation-of-powers conflict between Congress and the White House. The raid on Jefferson's office last weekend was the first time that the FBI has executed a search warrant on the Capitol Hill office of a sitting lawmaker.
The Justice Department initially signaled an unwillingness to return the documents. But White House officials are concerned about the vigorous and repeated complaints of the congressional leaders and have pressed the Justice Department to find a way to placate Congress and defuse the controversy, according to a department official.
Many Republicans and Democrats contend that the unprecedented raid on a congressional office was unduly aggressive and may have breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, which is meant to shelter lawmakers from administrative intimidation. Legal scholars are divided on this issue, however, and some said yesterday that the raid does not violate the letter of the Constitution or subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court.
The FBI is investigating allegations that Jefferson, who represents flood-ravaged New Orleans, took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his congressional influence to promote high-tech business ventures in Africa. The eight-term House member has denied wrongdoing and told reporters this week that he intends to run for reelection in November. Jefferson also rejected a call by Pelosi to temporarily vacate his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing panel, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
House Judiciary Committee ChairmanF. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) announced yesterday that he will hold a hearing on the "profoundly disturbing" questions that he said the Justice Department's actions have raised.
A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations, said after the Hastert-Pelosi joint statement was released that "the department will not agree to any arrangement or demand that would harm or hurt an ongoing law enforcement investigation."
"We are in discussions with them on something that would preserve law enforcement interests while also allaying their institutional concerns," the official said. "But our position is that we did it legally and we did it lawfully, and we're not going to back away from that."
Earlier in the day, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty said the Justice Department resorted to a search of Jefferson's office only because "other means" of obtaining the material had been unsuccessful. "We believe our actions were lawful and necessary under these very unusual circumstances," McNulty said.
Jefferson challenged the weekend raid in a motion filed yesterday in federal court. The motion sought the return of the documents and "immediate relief," including that the FBI and Justice Department stop reviewing seized items; that the materials be sequestered in a locked, secure place; and that the FBI raid team file a report with the court detailing which documents were reviewed and what was done to sequester the documents.
The motion was filed with Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who signed the Saturday-night search warrant.
Jefferson's case poses a political dilemma for Democratic leaders, who feel compelled to join in protesting the legality of the raid but who also are deeply troubled by the FBI's evidence against Jefferson and want to distance themselves as much as possible. The Democrats have sought to portray the Republicans as the party of corruption, but now the Democrats are being tainted by the Jefferson political corruption investigation.
Democrats yesterday released Pelosi's letter to Jefferson asking him to step down from the Ways and Means Committee "in the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus." In rejecting her request, Jefferson noted that he has served with members "who have been indicted, tried and won their cases, and who were never asked to step aside from their committee assignments during those processes."
The Jefferson case has revealed a more forceful side to Pelosi and has drawn protests from some of Jefferson's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, for what they regard as harsh treatment, given that Jefferson has not been indicted.
"I don't think there's any precedent for it," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.).
Voicing a contrary view, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) issued a statement yesterday saying, "I think it's very important that Congress be treated no differently than the average citizen when it comes to criminal matters."
An 83-page affidavit unsealed Sunday included allegations that the FBI had videotaped Jefferson last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents then found $90,000 of that cash stuffed inside a freezer in his D.C. apartment.
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. IGate is owned by Jackson.
Justice officials have declined to specify publicly what steps had been taken previously to attempt to force Jefferson to turn over the records held in his House office. A subpoena was issued in August, around the same time that investigators searched Jefferson's New Orleans home and D.C. apartment.
But Jefferson and his attorneys resisted the subpoena for materials from his office, asserting his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, according to sources familiar with the case. In an attempt to break the logjam, prosecutors filed a sealed motion in federal court in Alexandria against Jefferson's chief of staff, as keeper of the records, who is being represented by the House counsel's office, said a Justice official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled in favor of the government on some items and in favor of Jefferson on others but said in a footnote to his sealed ruling that the government was free to pursue a criminal search warrant to obtain the records, according to numerous law enforcement sources.
That notation opened the door for the government to apply for and obtain a search warrant from Hogan, even while Jefferson was appealing Ellis's order, several officials said.
Robert P. Trout, Jefferson's attorney, disputed the government's assertion that it had exhausted all other reasonable methods to obtain these records in a timely manner, pointing to his motion that stated "there were several less intrusive options available to the government."
Staff writers Dan Eggen and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.