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FBI review of Jefferson evidence barred

A federal appeals court on Friday barred the Justice Department from reviewing evidence seized from a Louisiana congressman's office during an unprecedented FBI raid on his Capitol Hill office in May.
/ Source: NBC News

A federal Appeals Court, in a ruling Friday afternoon, said the FBI is prevented from reviewing more than a dozen computer hard drives, several floppy discs and two boxes of documents seized during a weekend raid on May 20-21 of embattled Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office. That raid on a congressman's office was the first in U.S. history.

The three-judge panel remanded back to the District Court the task of finding out whether any of the documents seized in the raid contained any records of legislative acts. These documents may be protected by the Speech and Debate clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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 panel said Congressman Jefferson must be given the opportunity to invoke legislative privilege claims in private with the trial judge. Jefferson has two days upon receiving copies of documents that may contain legislative material seized in the raid to submit any claims on those documents to the District Court.

Previous ruling
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, turning down the stay order, 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."

Congressional opposition
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.

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 Seidman is an NBC Producer based in Washington, DC.