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Claiming 'speech or debate' issues

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Sunday, January 16, 2011; 10:19 PM

At least four recent investigations of current or former members of Congress have been affected by issues stemming from the Constitution's "speech or debate" clause, which shields legislative work from executive branch interference.

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Former representative Tom Feeney (R-Fla.)

Was under investigation in connection with a 2003 golf trip to Scotland financed by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Feeney originally reported that the trip was financed by a public policy organization. The House ethics committee rebuked Feeney, and he agreed to pay the government the cost of the trip. The Justice Department investigated whether he made false statements to the committee.

Feeney announced in 2009 that he had been notified the investigation had ended.

Former representative Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.)

Charged in 2008 with using his position in Congress to influence a federal land-exchange deal and attempting to benefit financially. Renzi's trial has since been delayed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has not ruled on whether to dismiss the indictment. His lawyers have argued that the government violated his rights when FBI agents wiretapped his cellphone, interviewed congressional aides without his consent and procured documents aides took from his office. House lawyers have compared Justice Department tactics in the case to illicit wiretapping under former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Former representative John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.)

Was under investigation for his and his wife's ties to Abramoff.

Sources familiar with the investigation said Doolittle mounted a defense based in part on the speech or debate clause. He challenged a search of his Oakton, Va., home and a Justice Department subpoena for records. Sources said the legal battle hampered the investigation.

Doolittle announced over the summer that he had been notified he will not be charged.

Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.)

Has been investigated because of allegations that he helped secure congressional earmarks for clients of powerful lobbying firms in exchange for campaign contributions. The lobbying firms included the former powerhouse PMA Group, also linked to the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who headed the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

Sources familiar with the investigation said Visclosky's lawyers refused to hand over much of the material sought by a federal grand jury, citing speech or debate issues. Sources said the Visclosky investigation has stalled but is not officially over.


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