By Allan Lengel and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
The Justice Department yesterday vigorously defended the recent weekend raid of Rep. William J. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office as part of a bribery investigation, asserting that the Democratic lawmaker attempted to hide documents from FBI agents while they were searching his New Orleans home last August.
The government questioned in a 34-page motion filed in U.S. District Court here whether it could have obtained all the materials it had sought in a subpoena if it had not launched the surprise raid on Jefferson's congressional office May 20. According to the government filing, an FBI agent caught Jefferson slipping documents into a blue bag in the living room of his New Orleans home during a search.
"It is my belief that when Congressman Jefferson placed documents into the blue bag, he was attempting to conceal documents that were relevant to the investigation," FBI agent Stacey E. Kent of New Orleans stated in an affidavit that was part of the government's court submission. The document was filed in response to Jefferson's lawsuit demanding that the government return to him documents seized during the raid on his Capitol Hill office 11 days ago.
Robert P. Trout, Jefferson's attorney, said he would refrain from commenting pending further review of the government's documents. Meanwhile, the recent FBI raid spurred new tensions between Congress and the administration, as a House committee chairman vowed to interrogate top Justice Department officials.
Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said he wants Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to appear "up here to tell us how they reached the conclusion" to conduct the raid, which Sensenbrenner called "profoundly disturbing" on constitutional grounds. The chairman also said that his committee "will be working promptly" to draft legislation that would clearly prohibit wide-ranging searches of lawmakers' offices by federal officials pursuing criminal cases.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse reiterated the agency's defense of the search as legal and necessary. He cautioned that Gonzales would not be able to go into detail about the Jefferson probe if he were to testify.
As part of its response to Jefferson's lawsuit, the government offered to provide a "filter team" -- to be made up of an FBI agent and two Justice Department lawyers not part of the investigation -- which would allow Jefferson to examine all the seized materials. If Jefferson thought legislative materials were "privileged" and unrelated to the criminal investigation but the government disagreed, a judge would be the final arbiter, under the proposal.
The Justice Department's court filing and Sensenbrenner's comments -- made during a hearing in which constitutional scholars sharply criticized the May 20 raid -- ran counter to recent efforts by President Bush and key lawmakers to calm down talk of a constitutional standoff. Bush last week ordered the seized materials to be sealed for 45 days, allowing time for tempers to cool and for lawyers and elected officials to confer.
But Sensenbrenner and several committee colleagues yesterday described the FBI's weekend search of Jefferson's office in the Rayburn House Office Building as an arrogant, unnecessary breach of tradition and vital constitutional protections. The FBI had several other ways to compel Jefferson to surrender specific items, they said. The copying of Jefferson's computer hard drive, they said, was akin to rifling through every file cabinet, including files dealing with matters unrelated to the alleged crimes.
The Constitution says House and Senate members "shall not be questioned . . . for any Speech or Debate in either House." Bruce Fein, one of the constitutional lawyers who testified yesterday, said that "when it comes to documents, the only way you can search is to read everything. And when you read everything, you encroach on the 'Speech or Debate' clause."
Noting that Gonzales, Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty signaled that they would resign if they were forced to return the Jefferson documents, Fein said: "Well, let them resign. I am astonished that the president would not have fired them for undertaking this action without consulting him in advance."
In yesterday's court filing, the government argued that law enforcement authorities should not be barred from conducting searches of congressional offices simply because they contain legislative materials -- such as committee reports, internal memos and drafts of bills -- that are protected under the "Speech or Debate" clause. "If his argument is accepted by this court, members of Congress and their staffs would be able to create search-free zones wherever they go by bringing along some legislative materials," the government said of Jefferson, 59, who has been under investigation since March 2005 over allegations that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his congressional influence to promote business ventures in Africa. A key part of the FBI probe has centered on Jefferson's dealings with iGate Inc., a Louisville high-tech company that was marketing broadband technology for the Internet and cable television in Africa.
Last Aug. 3, FBI agents searched Jefferson's New Orleans home while the congressman and family members were present. Kent said she was assigned to watch Jefferson and his family during the search, according to her affidavit accompanying the government motion yesterday.
She said she observed him looking at several pieces of paper on a table. At one point, she said, he asked to see a copy of the subpoena.
"After a copy had been brought to him and he reviewed it, I observed Congressman Jefferson then take the subpoena and the documents he had been reading earlier and place them together under his elbow on the kitchen table."
At one point, she said, he moved to the living room, which had just been searched, and sat on a recliner. While sitting, he slipped the subpoena and the documents into a blue bag that he knew had already been searched, Kent's affidavit said.
"After several minutes, I approached Congressman Jefferson and told him that I needed to look at the documents that he had placed into the bag," the agent stated. "Congressman Jefferson told me the documents were subpoenas."
He finally pulled out the documents that were from a B.K. Son. The search warrant had asked for all communications between Jefferson and Son, the affidavit said. Son is the chief technology officer of iGate.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan set a June 16 hearing to address the motion by Jefferson's attorney seeking the return all the seized documents.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.