WASHINGTON — The FBI’s weekend search of the House office of a Louisiana Democrat under investigation for bribery may have overstepped constitutional boundaries, House leaders said as the congressman under investigation pledged to stay in office.
House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio told reporters Tuesday that the Congress will somehow speak to “this issue of the Justice Department’s invasion of the legislative branch. In what form, I don’t know.”
“I’ve got to believe at the end of the day it’s going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court,” Boehner said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the Justice Department had never before crossed a line that separates Congress from the executive branch by searching a congressional office while investigating a member of Congress.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Tuesday he understood the concerns of some members of Congress about the search and said he was working with lawmakers as to how to handle the investigation.
“We’re in discussion privately about what can be done to alleviate the concerns,” Gonzales said at a Justice Department news conference. “I ... and the department have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a coequal branch of government ... and obviously are sensitive to their concerns. We are working to address those concerns. We have discussions with the House. Those began last night.”
Not a raid, spokesman says
White House spokesman Tony Snow said earlier, “We are hoping that there’s a way to balance the Constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch.”
Snow also said the Justice Department executed search warrants and didn’t “raid” the office. “I think using the term raid makes it sound a little like the calvary is storming into the halls of Congress,” he said.
The search warrant was issued by a federal district judge, based on an affidavit from FBI investigators outlining some of the evidence that has accumulated in the case, including video tape of Rep. William Jefferson accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an FBI informant, who agreed to have her conversations with the congressman taped.
Agents later found all but $10,000 of the cash — in marked bills — hidden in a freezer in one of the congressman’s homes, according to the affidavit.
His homes in New Orleans and the Washington area were searched by FBI agents last August.
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“Nothing I have learned in the last 48 hours leads me to believe that there was any necessity to change the precedent established over those 219 years,” Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement Monday.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said congressional independence from the executive branch protects Americans from abuses of power.
“Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with Constitutional protections and historical precedent,” she said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the raid raises questions about why the Justice Department raided the offices of a Democrat but not Republican lawmakers under investigation. “It certainly has been disparate treatment,” he said.
No resignation expected
Jefferson, whose office was searched over the weekend in connection with allegations of bribery, told reporters that he would not resign.
“I plan to go to the floor to vote tonight. I plan to go to the floor to vote tomorrow,” he said. “I plan to carry out my responsibilities here, as I have since the time that I’ve been here.”
He declined to talk about allegations that he was videotaped accepting money from a Virginia businesswoman who is cooperating with investigators. She was identified as Lori Mody by a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the woman’s name was kept secret in court documents.
Jefferson called the weekend search of his office an “outrageous intrusion.”
The search warrant affidavit spells out special procedures put in place to ensure the search did not infringe on privileged material. The procedures include use of a “filter team” of prosecutors and FBI agents unconnected to the investigation. They would review any seized items or documents and determine whether the documents are privileged and therefore immune from the search warrant.
If the status of a document is in doubt, the filter team will give the documents to a judge for a definitive ruling before giving them to case prosecutors, according to the affidavit.
Hastert said those protections may not be enough.
“It is not at all clear to me that it would even be possible to create special procedures that would overcome the Constitutional problems that the execution of this warrant has created,” he said.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, but two of his associates have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in federal court in Alexandria, Va.
The House Ethics Committee has opened an inquiry into the case.
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