The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today granted embattled Congressman William Jefferson, D-LA, a small victory, by way of an administrative injunction, temporarily preventing FBI agents from sifting through documents seized from his Capitol Hill office in May. The document review was to begin today.
The decision - by two members of a three-judge panel - means the Justice Department cannot begin a review of more than a dozen computer hard drives, several floppy discs and two boxes of documents seized during a weekend raid on May 20-21. That raid on a congressman's office was the first in U.S. history.
The overnight search - which lasted 18 hours - was part of a 16-month international bribery investigation of Jefferson, who allegedly accepted $100,000 from a telecommunications businessman, $90,000 of which was later recovered in a freezer in the congressman's Louisiana home.
The Court, responding to an emergency motion by Jefferson's attorney, writes, "that appellee be enjoined from resuming its review of the material seized from Congressman William J. Jefferson's office pursuant to a search warrant executed on May 20, 2006, pending further order of the court."
The ruling states that the purpose of the administrative injunction is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the motion for stay pending appeal.
The judges underscore that their ruling, "should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion."
Last week, District Court Judge Thomas Hogan ruled that materials seized in the FBI raid can be reviewed by a "filter team" of FBI agents. The filter team is not connected with the prosecution team investigating bribery allegations surrounding the congressman.
This team would review records to determine if they were responsive to the items listed in a court warrant authorizing the search. The team also will give Jefferson an opportunity to examine the seized materials and seek a court ruling on any claims of confidentiality by the congressman or the House of Representatives regarding particular documents.
Judge Hogan did not agree with a stay order, effectively stopping any executive branch review of the seized items, because he said, it "would harm the public's interest in a prompt and final outcome of the Government's investigation of serious crimes involving a sitting United States Congressman running for reelection in November."
Jefferson and the House leaders had vigorously argued that the search of a Capitol Hill office was unconstitutional because FBI agents had combed through "protected" material during their 18-hour search for evidence.
Attorneys for the bipartisan leadership of the House have said, they "are seriously considering" filing a brief with the Appeals Court this week opposing a ruling by a judge on documents seized from Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson's office.
The House Counsel has opposed the search of Rep Jefferson's Capitol Hill offices, saying it was unconstitutional. The House lawyers are now weighing whether to challenge a federal judge's order allowing FBI agents to examine materials seized in a weekend raid in May of Jefferson's Capitol Hill offices.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said on Sunday he believed Jefferson, was "in big trouble" and that the House would not be joining in support of Jefferson himself. But he said the House separately might seek to make clear its position that the Justice Department cannot randomly and wantonly search lawmakers' offices. Hastert also said FBI agents should be able to search for documents on any criminal aspect, but that they do not have a right to "take all your records," such as confidential tax forms.
Jefferson, according to court documents, is being investigated concerning allegations that he solicited and accepted bribes to help promote a cable television and Internet business in West Africa.
The congressman has not been charged and has insisted he has an explanation for all the allegations. Jefferson has repeatedly predicted he will eventually be cleared of all wrongdoing.
Joel Siedman is an NBC Producer based in Washington, DC.