In a rare display of bipartisan solidarity, Republican congressional leaders rose to the defense Tuesday of a Democratic congressman who is the subject of a bribery investigation, accusing the Justice Department of improperly searching his Capitol Hill office.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the separation of powers guaranteed in the Constitution meant that agencies of the executive branch had no right to seize materials from the legislative branch.
“In getting a search warrant to raid an office in a separate branch of the government -- it has never happened in the history of our country,” Boehner told reporters. “I have got to believe at the end of the day it is going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court.”
The Justice Department defended the Saturday night search, in which FBI investigators reportedly seized documents from the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.).
Investigators said they previously found $90,000 in cash, wrapped in foil, in the freezer of Jefferson’s Washington home. The application for the search warrant for Jefferson’s House office, released Sunday, indicated that agents were seeking “computer hardware and software and other digital or electronic media,” as well as documents such as travel logs and letters to officials in Ghana.
At a news conference Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales provided no details of the search, describing it as “a unique step in response to a unique set of circumstances.”
“We worked very hard over a period of time to get the information, the evidence that we felt was important to a criminal investigation, and at the end of the day the decision was made that this was absolutely essential to move forward with that investigation,” Gonzales said.
Jefferson, 59, represents New Orleans and is on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. An affidavit that accompanied the request for the search warrant said Jefferson had been videotaped by the FBI in July 2005 accepting $100,000 in cash from a Virginia businesswoman, allegedly to be used as a bribe to help a Kentucky company in which she had a substantial investment obtain contracts to provide telephone and Internet service in Nigeria and Ghana.
The businesswoman, whom the government did not identify, began cooperating with investigators in March 2005, the affidavit said. It said she approached the FBI after suspecting that Jefferson and others were trying to defraud her of the millions she had invested in the technology company, iGate Inc. of Louisville, Ky.
Brett M. Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide who later worked for the businesswoman’s investment company, and Vernon L. Jackson, iGate’s owner, have pleaded guilty in the case and are cooperating with investigators.
Jefferson’s lawyer, Robert Trout, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Over the weekend, he called the search outrageous.
“There were no exigent circumstances necessitating this action,” Trout said. “The government knew that the documents were being appropriately preserved while proper procedures were being followed.”
Gonzales said that federal agents resorted to the search of Jefferson’s office after they were unable to reach an agreement to get the evidence they sought through a subpoena.
But in a statement, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) suggested that the Justice Department had not exhausted the subpoena process before resorting to a search warrant.
“I am very concerned about the necessity of a Saturday night raid on Congressman Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office in pursuit of information that was already under subpoena, and at a time when those subpoenas are still pending and all the documents that have been subpoenaed were being preserved,” Hastert said.
It was not known what steps the Justice Department might have taken to enforce the subpoena before seeking a search warrant. The government’s rationale for the search was blacked out when the affidavit requesting the warrant was released Sunday.
Former House general counsel Stanley Brand, now a Washington lawyer, said the next step should have been to go to court to enforce the subpoena, not to bypass it with a search warrant.
“You don’t just raid the office,” Brand said. “You go to court and try to enforce the subpoena. You have to go through the process. I just think it’s over the top.”
Hastert and Boehner raised the issue during a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday, and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that the search posed constitutional questions.
“We are hoping that there is a way to balance the constitutional concerns of the House of Representatives with the law enforcement obligations of the executive branch,” Snow told reporters. “Those are two things that are in play here. And obviously, we’re taking note of Speaker Hastert’s statements.”
Snow said the White House was not notified in advance of the search, and took issue with the use of the word “raid” to describe the FBI operation.
“The Justice Department executed search warrants,” he said. “I think using the term ‘raid’ makes it sound a little like the cavalry is storming into the halls of Congress.”
In the Senate, members also expressed concern. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), chairman of the Rules Committee, ordered the panel’s staff to study the search.
“It has separation-of-powers ramifications,” said Lott, a former Senate majority leader. “I don’t want to blow this out of proportion or suggest some looming confrontation ... but there’s a reason this has not ever been done before.”
But some members said legislators should be held to the same standards as ordinary Americans.
“Congress should not set itself apart from citizens,” Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call. “We should be treated alike when it comes to criminal codes.”
According to the affidavit seeking the warrant, investigators have been pursuing possible criminal charges against Jefferson for more than a year.
The search of his congressional office -- and allegations that he had stored large amounts of cash in his freezer after being snared in an FBI sting last year -- has led some to believe that he is being unfairly accused in public without being formally charged.
But legal experts said they were not surprised that no charges had been filed yet. Corruption cases are notoriously paper-intensive, they said, and often turn on the thorny question of establishing that the person under investigation intended to commit a crime.
Although the unprecedented search has made headlines, the investigation is in many ways proceeding along a normal track, the experts said, with guilty pleas from people who had dealings with Jefferson and their promises to cooperate with the investigation.
Even the cash reportedly found in Jefferson’s freezer may not be necessarily incriminating.
“There could be lots of criminal explanations and lots of possible noncriminal explanations,” said Randall D. Eliason, former chief of public corruption at the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington. “It was a loan. It could be some kind of business deal that is improper or unethical but not a crime. It may be sleazy -- but not necessarily illegal.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Richard B. Schmitt and Janet Hook contributed to this report.