The Justice Department has appealed a ruling by federal appeals court regarding the FBI search of Rep. William Jefferson's (D-La.) office in the House Rayburn Office Building, renewing a legal fight over how far law enforcement officials can go in pursuing cases against sitting members of Congress.
The Justice Department is challenging a three-judge panel's ruling that the May 20, 2006, FBI raid violated Jefferson's constitutional privilege under the Speech or Debate Clause. That privilege protects lawmakers and staffers from legal action related to their official duties. The Justice Dept. had obtained a search warrant to conduct the raid, after Jefferson had refused to honor subpoenas for materials from his congressional office.
Jefferson has since been indicted on a litany of federal charges, including bribery and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act over his business dealings in Africa. While Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing, two men, including a former Jefferson aide, have already pleaded guilty and are helping the Justice Dept.
The FBI raid produced an outcry from lawmakers in both parties, including then Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who directed House lawyers to file a motion challenging the FBI search. After losing a round in distric court, Jefferson won a victory on appeal, although Justice is seeking to have that decision overturned.
The Justice Department is asking for a hearing by the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, arguing that the ruling "threatens to complicate numerous ongoing and future investigations by inviting litigation over routine techniques" because it barred searches of "any locations where legislative materials [are] inevitably to be found."
"By interpreting the Clause to include an absolute non-disclosure privilege, the panel has not only frustrated the execution of search warrants supported by probable cause, it has invited questions concerning the lawfulness of essential tools in investigating and prosecuting corruption - including electronic surveillance, consensual monitoring, searches of home offices, and voluntary interviews of staffers - 'that have never been considered problematic,'" Justice Dept. prosecutors wrote in their filing.