By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; A04
A federal judge in Washington ruled yesterday that the unprecedented FBI raid on Rep. William J. Jefferson's Capitol Hill office was constitutional, saying the government "demonstrated a compelling need to conduct the search" in the ongoing public corruption probe.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, in an anxiously awaited 28-page opinion, said politicians were not above the law, and he rejected arguments from the Louisiana Democrat that the search violated the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause, which protects speech and documents related to legislative activity.
"Congressman Jefferson's interpretation of the Speech or Debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime," Hogan wrote, rejecting the request to return the seized materials.
Since March 2005, the FBI has been 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, Ghana and Cameroon.
Robert P. Trout, Jefferson's lawyer, vowed to appeal the ruling. He said he also planned to request a stay to keep the seized documents under seal pending appeal. If granted, the stay could further delay FBI investigators, who have been waiting to examine the potential evidence in the 15-month probe.
"The raid on Congressman Jefferson's office was unprecedented, unnecessary and unconstitutional," Trout said in a statement, adding that "we respectfully disagree" with the judge's ruling.
A Justice Department official hailed the ruling but said the department "will wait for the court's decision on the stay before accessing the documents."
Jefferson, 59, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and has not been charged.
About 15 FBI agents raided the office at the Rayburn House Office Building the night of May 20 and spent 18 hours sifting through documents and copying computer hard drives.
Shortly afterward, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders protested the raid, saying it violated the separation of powers principle and illegally encroached on congressional rights. Days later, President Bush intervened, ordering the seized materials to be sealed for 45 days to give the Justice Department and Congress time to work out a compromise. Hogan subsequently issued his own order to keep the materials under seal.
Yesterday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had been a vocal critic of the raid, offered a measured response to the ruling.
Pelosi said in a statement that "no one is above the law" and that congressional members should not be allowed to use their offices to conceal criminal activity. But she added that "this particular search could have been conducted in a manner that fully protected the ability of the prosecutors to obtain the evidence needed to do their job while preserving constitutional principles."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declined to comment because the case is pending. The general counsel for the House, who had filed motions challenging the constitutionality of the raids, also declined to comment.
Two Jefferson business associates -- former aide Brett M. Pfeffer and Vernon L. Jackson, owner of iGate Inc., a Louisville-based high-tech company -- have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote cable television and Internet ventures in Africa. As part of the probe, the FBI set up a sting and passed on $100,000 in bribe money that Jefferson said was for an African official.
Jefferson's attorneys argued that he should have been able to separate privileged legislative documents before investigators seized the materials.
But the judge said there is no such requirement and noted that the government took precautions by using a team of two Justice Department lawyers and an FBI agent, none of them involved in the case, to screen sensitive legislative material.
Hogan concluded that investigators were "unable to obtain the evidence sought through any other reasonable means."