The FBI violated the Constitution when agents raided U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s office last year and viewed legislative documents, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The court ordered the Justice Department to return any privileged documents it seized from the Louisiana Democrat’s office on Capitol Hill. The court did not order the return of all the documents seized in the raid.
Jefferson argued that the raid trampled on congressional independence. The Justice Department said that declaring the search unconstitutional would essentially prohibit the FBI from ever looking at a lawmaker’s documents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, nonetheless, sided with Jefferson on the constitutional issue.
“The review of the Congressman’s paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material to the Executive,” and violated the Constitution, the court wrote. “The Congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged.”
The raid 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 Washington home.
“We’re pleased with the court’s decision that makes it clear that the search violated the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution,” Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, said after a brief review of the ruling. He said he has not yet discussed the decision with Jefferson.
Justice Department defends raid
Jefferson pleaded not guilty in June to charges of soliciting more than $500,000 in bribes while using his office to broker business deals in Africa. The Justice Department said it built that case without using the disputed documents from the raid.
The Justice Department said it took extraordinary steps to avoid crossing that line. Government attorneys said the Constitution was not intended to shield lawmakers from prosecution for political corruption.
The case has cut across political party lines. Former House Speakers Newt Gingrich, a Republican, and Thomas Foley, a Democrat, filed legal documents opposing the raid, along with former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, a Republican.
Conservative groups Judicial Watch and the Washington Legal Foundation were joined by the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in supporting the legality of the raid.
Following his indictment, Jefferson’s supporters accused the Bush administration of targeting black Democrats to shift attention from the legal troubles of Republican congressmen.
Despite the looming investigation, Jefferson was re-elected to a ninth term in 2006. His win complicated things for Democratic leaders who promised to run the most ethical Congress in history.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stripped Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and placed him instead on the Small Business Committee. He resigned that committee assignment after being indicted.