House Leaders Concede FBI Right to Search
Friday, May 26, 2006; 11:01 PM
WASHINGTON -- House leaders acknowledged Friday that FBI agents with a court-issued warrant can legally search a congressman's office, but they said they want procedures established after agents with a court warrant took over a lawmaker's office last week.
"I want to know exactly what would happen if there is a similar sort of thing" in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Friday, shortly after summoning Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to his office.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., concurred: "I am confident that in the next 45 days, the lawyers will figure out how to do it right."
Gonzales was similarly optimistic. "We've been working hard already and we'll continue to do so pursuant to the president's order," he told The Associated Press.
In an editorial page article in USA Today on Friday, Hastert said he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have directed House lawyers "to develop reasonable protocols and procedures that will make it possible for the FBI to go into congressional offices to constitutionally execute a search warrant."
Until last Saturday night, no such warrant had ever been used to search a lawmaker's office in the 219-year history of the Congress. Without advance notice, FBI agents then arrived at a House building to conduct an overnight search at the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., an eight-term lawmaker accused of bribery.
They carted away computer and other records in their pursuit of evidence that Jefferson accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for helping set up business deals in Africa.
Hastert and Pelosi, striking rare, election-year unity, protested that the FBI had not notified them and that the search violated the Constitution's separation of power protections. Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested the matter would be resolved by the Supreme Court.
"No one is above the law," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter Friday to members in her party. "Democrats will not support any position that allows members of Congress to use their office to shield illegal activity, period."
But, she added that "unlike the rights afforded a private citizen," neither Capitol Police, Jefferson, his staff or attorney nor the House's general counsel were allowed to be present. She said any procedures must establish that lawmakers can assert that documents in their office are part of the legislative process protected from disclosure to the executive branch by the Constitution.
"The courts must decide if the documents sought are part of the legislative process," Pelosi said. "When subpoenas are at issue, almost all courts have held that as a constitutional issue is being decided, the documents should remain in the possession of the House. In last Saturday's search, this precedent was ignored."
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan on Friday set a schedule that could lead to a hearing by mid-June on whether the FBI must return all the confiscated material to Jefferson. Hogan, who a week ago issued the warrant for the search of Jefferson's office, had wanted to hold a hearing on the issue on Tuesday, but prosecutors asked for more time.
Earlier in the week, Hastert lodged a protest directly with Bush during a meeting at the White House and demanded that the FBI return the materials. Bush struck a compromise Thursday, ordering that the documents be sealed and turned over to the custody of Solicitor General Paul Clement until congressional leaders and the Justice Department agree on what to do with them.
"Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries," Bush said in a statement. "Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out."
The new talks are aimed at establishing guidelines for any future searches that might stem from federal investigations, including a widening Capitol Hill influence-peddling probe centered on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Meanwhile, a former aide to Jefferson was sentenced Friday to eight years in prison for his role in the bribery scandal investigation involving the congressman.
Brett Pfeffer, 37, of Herndon, Va., pleaded guilty in January to two bribery-related charges: conspiracy to commit bribery and aiding and abetting bribery of a public official. Jefferson's name did not come up in the hearing in federal court, but other documents have made clear he is that public official.
Pfeffer admitted to helping broker deals between Jefferson and a northern Virginia investment executive for whom Pfeffer worked. That executive, who has not been identified in court documents, agreed to pay bribes to Jefferson after Pfeffer said the congressman would require it.