In a legal showdown hearing today before the federal judge who signed the search warrant allowing the FBI to enter Congressman William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office last month, the Department of Justice said that materials collected from Jefferson's office, "contained evidence of serious crimes."
The hearing pitted the executive and legislative branches of government in a spirited debate over a provision in the U.S. Constitution - known as the Speech and Debate Clause - which protects members of Congress from being questioned by the president, a prosecutor or a plaintiff in a lawsuit concerning their legislative work.
Roy McLeese, who argued for the government, said seeking a warrant to search Jefferson's congressional office was a last resort, "other alternatives were explored" he said, but "none were successful." McLeese said collecting evidence of bribery using a "legally executed search warrant," was not protected by the constitutional provision. The government reiterating, they were not after legislative records.
Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout said this was the very first search of a congressman's office in 218 years. He said that the FBI spent 18 hours on Saturday and Sunday May 20-21, "pawing through every record and every document" in the congressman's office, including he said, legislative records. That search and seizure of legislative materials Trout said was, "unconstitutional." Trout demanding that materials taken from Jefferson's office be returned.
Terry Kirsher, representing the bipartisan House counsel, argued the search violated the Constitution because it took place without Congressman Jefferson having had a prior opportunity to screen out and remove records and files or determine not to assert the privilege. And said that Members of Congress have special protections and are "treated differently," under the constitution.
Judge Thomas Hogan, who signed the search warrant, said he was not "sanguine" with both Jefferson's attorney's argument or that of the House of Representatives regarding the special protections they said were afforded to congressmen. Hogan saying he believed the Speech and Debate clause was not, "a hide and conceal clause." He acknowledged that when the President interceded - he partially granted Jefferson's motion to have the seized materials returned - the president ordered the materials taken in the raid sealed, and placed in protective custody until mid-July in the Solicitor General's office. The judge said he would render an opinion on the constitutionality of the search shortly.
Congressman Jefferson is under investigation for allegedly taking bribes in order to influence high-ranking government officials in Africa to do business with a Kentucky based internet company.
Jefferson has not been charged and repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing in the alleged scheme. But, a Kentucky business owner and a former congressional aide have both pleaded guilty to bribing the congressman. Jefferson's former aide Brett Pfeffer, who is cooperating with the Justice Department's investigation, received an eight-year prison sentence recently for his role in the scandal. Vernon Jackson, chief executive of iGate, the Kentucky company, pleaded to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Jefferson. Jackson is scheduled to be sentenced in July.
Joel Seidman is an NBC producer, based in Washington, DC