Former House Leaders Weigh In on FBI Case
Monday, April 2, 2007
Embattled Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), the target of a two-year public-corruption probe, is finding himself with strange bedfellows these days.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former House minority leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) and Scott Palmer, former chief of staff for Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), are among those who have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, backing Jefferson's argument that the controversial FBI raid on his office last May was unconstitutional.
"These former leaders of the House had concerns about the integrity and independence of the institution, and therefore they decided to file this joint brief," said lawyer James Hamilton, who filed an amicus brief on behalf of Gingrich and Michel as well as former House speaker Thomas Foley (D-Wash.).
But Jefferson's Democratic colleagues, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have been conspicuously quiet as the constitutional fight over the FBI raid continues.
Jefferson has denied wrongdoing and late last year was elected to a ninth term. He overcame a barrage of negative publicity following allegations that he used his official position to promote high-tech business ventures in Africa in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Court records show the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer. Two of his business associates are now serving prison terms after pleading guilty to bribing him.
Jefferson has not been charged with a crime. On May 20, more than a dozen FBI agents raided Jefferson's offices in the Rayburn House Office Building. The move prompted a constitutional confrontation that led President Bush to step in and order the FBI not to look at any of the documents seized so the Justice Department and lawmakers would have more time to negotiate a compromise.
Federal prosecutors filed briefs on Friday urging the appeals court to uphold the constitutionality of the search. U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ruled in July that the FBI had "demonstrated a compelling need to conduct the search," and the appeals court will hear oral arguments May 15 on the matter.
In the initial days after last year's raid, Pelosi and then-Speaker Hastert expressed anger over the raid and argued that members' legislative records were protected from seizure by law enforcement under the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution.
Polls later showed the public overwhelmingly critical of Congress for opposing the FBI search, dismissing lawmakers' arguments about separation of powers.
Pelosi decided not to file briefs at the appeals court after House Republicans refused to join her.
Nadeam Elshami, the speaker's spokeswoman, said Pelosi still firmly believes "there must be clear guidelines that allow criminal investigations to proceed while also assuring that Constitutional guarantees of separation of powers are maintained."
But, Elshami said, "the bipartisan House leadership did not reach agreement on specifics of an appeal in this case."