A federal judge held Monday that an FBI search of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was lawfully conducted, ruling that members of Congress who are under criminal investigation generally deserve no more protection under the law than ordinary citizens.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan was a blow both to Jefferson, the focus of a federal bribery probe, and to the House leadership, a bipartisan group that had supported his protest of the search.
At issue was the scope of the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution, which protects members of Congress from being questioned or prosecuted for their legislative activities.
Jefferson and the House leaders had argued that the search was unconstitutional because FBI agents had combed through "protected" material during their 18-hour search for evidence on May 20 and 21. They contended that Jefferson should have been given the opportunity to review his files before the investigators moved in.
But Hogan said that right did not exist.
"Congressman Jefferson's interpretation of the speech-or-debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime," the judge wrote.
The possibility that some legislative materials may have been "incidentally captured" by FBI investigators did not make the entire search illegal, Hogan said.
Any materials covered by the "speech or debate" privilege cannot be used against Jefferson in court if he is charged with a crime, Hogan added.
Hogan ordered that two boxes of papers and copies of computer hard drives seized during the raid be returned to the Justice Department so that prosecutors could continue their investigation of Jefferson, which began more than a year ago.
The congressman's lawyers are believed to be seeking an order blocking the return pending an appeal. The Justice Department is not expected to oppose that move.
Jefferson is being investigated to determine whether he accepted bribes and used his position to influence business deals in Africa in which he or family members had an interest. A former staff member has pleaded guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe Jefferson and has been sentenced to eight years in prison.
A separate search of Jefferson's Washington home last year allegedly turned up $90,000 in foil-wrapped bills in his freezer that was part of an FBI sting involving an informant.
The Justice Department has been investigating a number of Congress members on suspicion of corruption, and the raid on Jefferson's office -- believed to be the first such search in congressional history -- was part of that effort.
The search worries House leaders who see the case as a test of Congress' independence. Members are also anxious about who might be investigated next.
President Bush ordered the documents sealed shortly after the search in May and urged the two sides to negotiate a truce. The 45-day order sealing the documents expired Monday.
At Bush's behest, lawyers for the Justice Department and the House have been discussing procedures for handling future searches of congressional offices. But that process does not appear close to a resolution, and the judge's emphatic ruling Monday, though not unexpected, is not likely to soften the two sides' respective positions.
"The raid on Congressman Jefferson's office was unprecedented, unnecessary and unconstitutional," Jefferson's lawyer, Robert P. Trout, said in a statement. "While a congressman is not above the law, the executive branch must also follow the law."
Trout said Jefferson would appeal the ruling.
House leaders said that they continued to believe the FBI had acted imprudently.
"This particular search could have been conducted in a manner that fully protected the ability of the prosecutors to obtain the evidence needed to do their job while preserving constitutional principles," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
She said the House hoped to develop procedures with Justice Department negotiators to "maintain the constitutional balance between the legislative and executive branches of government."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the ruling "allows us to move forward in this investigation using the documents that the court has concluded were lawfully obtained."
He said the department would continue to work with Congress on search procedures.