Raid on Rep. Jefferson's Office Yields Legal Mess
It was a year ago this week that the FBI, for the first time in U.S. history, raided the office of a member of Congress. Agents carted off documents and computer hard drives belonging to Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana.
The case has been tied up ever since by legal wrangling over the FBI's authority in carrying out a search warrant. And Jefferson weathered the initial scandal, winning re-election in his New Orleans district last fall.
Tuesday, the case returned to court, as three federal appeals judges quizzed lawyers for Jefferson and the Justice Department. Jefferson's lawyers want the search results to be thrown out, citing constitutional protections for Congress.
Jefferson has always insisted on his innocence, as he did amid the media clamor after the raid.
"There are two sides to every story," he said then. "There are certainly two sides to this story. There will be an appropriate time and forum when that can be explained and explicated."
The affidavit of the FBI agent who sought the search warrant alleges that Jefferson agreed to help a company make deals in Nigeria and Ghana, provided that he and his family got a cut of the action.
It says agents videotaped Jefferson taking a briefcase with $100,000 in marked bills and then found most of those bills in a freezer at Jefferson's house.
It notes that two other targets of the investigation pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges.
And it goes on from there.
But Jefferson and some congressional legal experts say the raid on his office violated the "speech-or-debate" clause of the U.S. Constitution, which protects federal lawmakers in their legislative duties.
So why did the FBI go for that search warrant?
"That's the $64 million question," said Melanie Sloan of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government.
At Tuesday's hearing, Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, said the speech-or-debate clause is an absolute protection.
"Members have the absolute right to shield their legislative activities from forced or involuntary disclosure," Trout asserted. "But in this case, the FBI went into a congressional office and for the first time in our country's history conducted a wholesale search and seizure."
The Justice Department argues that it didn't violate the speech-or-debate clause, because one set of agents seized the documents and another set of agents will use them after the court gives permission.
The debate over the FBI's authority in executing the search warrant has tied the case up for a year.
During that time, House Democrats removed Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee and Republicans pointed to him as evidence of Democratic corruption. Then his constituents in New Orleans re-elected him.
Jefferson has since sorted through the seized documents.
"We have had an opportunity to review documents for privilege and we have completed our review," Trout said. "And it's now pending before the court. How many pages are we talking about here? About 47,000 pages."
Jefferson claims privilege for nearly half of them. At least one of the judges yesterday seemed openly skeptical that the government is entitled to see any of them.
Melanie Sloan — no fan of Jefferson's — says the raid could undermine the whole case against him.
"I certainly believe that the Justice Department had the right to search the congressional office — that congressional offices are not sacrosanct," Sloan said.
Then she adds: "It was clearly an unwise decision in this case, because it is in fact holding up the prosecution of a sitting congressman who is very likely a criminal."
The Justice Department now seems a long way from proving Sloan's assertion.
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