Bush Seals Jefferson’s Seized Files
President Bush intervened Thursday to defuse an increasingly bitter dispute between congressional leaders and the Justice Department, ordering that documents seized in an unprecedented raid on a congressman’s office be sealed for 45 days.
Congressional leaders, displaying rare bipartisan unity, had angrily accused the Justice Department of overstepping its authority and demanded the return of the material confiscated in a weekend search of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), who is under investigation for bribery.
It is highly unusual for a president to step into a Justice Department investigation. Bush’s decision followed an escalating conflict that strained relations between the White House and the Republican-led Congress.
The president’s intervention also came as federal probes into possible corruption have the House on edge. In a radio interview Thursday morning, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who had complained to the president about the raid, accused Justice Department officials of trying to intimidate him by leaking a false story to ABC News that he was under investigation.
Although the 45-day delay will slow down the investigation of a Democrat, it could also benefit Republicans, who are under greater scrutiny in the investigation surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has pleaded guilty to fraud and schemes to bribe members of Congress.
In a statement explaining his decision, Bush acknowledged the “deeply held views” of House leaders that the raid violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch.
“After days of discussions, it is clear that these differences will require more time to be worked out,” he said, noting that the timeout would allow a solution that “respects the interests of a coequal branch of government.”
Hastert accepted the olive branch. “This gives everybody a chance to step back,” he said after meeting with Republicans, whose cheers at the announcement could be heard outside a room in the Capitol.
Hastert insisted he was defending the Constitution, not a potentially corrupt congressman. “We need to protect our Constitution,” he said. “It’s important that the people’s records are protected.”
The dispute began Saturday, when FBI agents served a search warrant on Jefferson’s office and barred congressional officers -- including the House sergeant of arms and the Capitol Police -- from the overnight search. The dozen agents removed two boxes of documents and copied computer files.
It is believed to be the only time in U.S. history that the executive branch served a search warrant on a congressional office.
The Justice Department said the move came after Jefferson had resisted a subpoena. Investigators have already searched his Washington-area home, where they reported finding $90,000 in marked bills wrapped in foil in his freezer. The FBI said it earlier videotaped him accepting the money from a Virginia businesswoman.
Congressional leaders argue that the Constitution protects lawmakers from such searches of their offices but have offered to establish a procedure to make available materials that are wanted in a criminal investigation.
“Members were relieved to see the White House response,” said Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “They believe it gives us a chance to find the proper way to view this material.”
Tensions between House Republicans and the White House have been building for months.
Members complain that the White House often ignores their views, which led to an unwanted debate over Social Security, and has been politically tone-deaf on issues such as allowing a Dubai company to manage U.S. ports.
“There are several instances here that are extremely troubling to members of Congress,” said a Republican leadership aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Earlier in the day, Hastert told Chicago radio station WGN that the ABC News report was “one of the leaks that come out to try to ... intimidate people, and we’re just not going to be intimidated.”
The network reported Wednesday night that the FBI was investigating Hastert in connection with the influence-peddling probe surrounding Abramoff, who is cooperating with federal investigators.
After the ABC News report, the Justice Department twice denied that Hastert was under investigation. Hastert said the report was false, and his lawyers have demanded a retraction and threatened legal action.
ABC News reported that investigators were examining a letter that Hastert and others wrote in 2003 to the secretary of the Interior to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed with tribes then represented by Abramoff. The letter was written shortly after a fundraiser for Hastert at a Washington restaurant that Abramoff owned at the time.
An ABC News executive said the report did not say Hastert was a “target” or “subject” of the investigation. “We said he was ‘in the mix’ and that Abramoff had said things to federal investigators which have led them to look at a number of congressmen, including the speaker,” said Jeffrey Schneider, a spokesman.
Responding to Hastert’s charge that someone in the department was trying to intimidate him, a Justice Department spokesman said, “We are not going to dignify or speculate about the motives of anonymous sources providing inaccurate information.”
White House officials would not say whether Bush spoke personally to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales about the raid but said that there had been “ongoing discussions” with officials from Justice and the House.
Bush ordered the U.S. solicitor general to ensure the documents remain under seal for 45 days. That office, which is not involved in the Jefferson investigation, represents the government before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gonzales, who approved the search of Jefferson’s office, issued a statement saying he was satisfied with the president’s decision.
“Throughout this discussion period with the Congress over the court-authorized search of Congressman Jefferson’s office, the Justice Department has sought to protect the integrity of this important ongoing public corruption investigation,” Gonzales said. “The president’s order does that and provides additional time to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress.”
A government official, who requested anonymity, said Justice Department negotiators were adamant that the department not relinquish the seized materials because it could compromise the investigation.
The official also said some senior department officials were prepared to resign if Bush had ordered the documents returned.
Press Secretary Tony Snow said Thursday that the White House counsel’s office learned of the raid only after it had begun.
Snow said Bush decided to order the 45-day seal to “shift the focus from who gets the records right now to the more constructive task of working together to resolve the constitutional concerns of both sides.”
“It became pretty obvious that this was a very complex issue, and it was necessary to give cooler heads time to prevail on it,” Snow said. “We’re getting into uncharted constitutional waters, and I think both sides want to preserve the integrity of their institutions.”
Harvard law professor Charles Fried, a solicitor general in the Reagan administration, said he considered the House’s legal arguments to be on shaky ground but said Bush’s actions were reasonable.
“It is something new, but in principle it strikes me as probably OK,” Fried said. “No evidence is lost. [Jefferson] has no chance to flush any papers down the toilet. So it’s all on ice, and people can figure it out.”
Jefferson, an eight-term congressman from New Orleans, is accused of accepting cash in return for helping a Virginia businesswoman obtain contracts to provide mobile phone and Internet services in the African countries of Ghana and Nigeria. Two Jefferson associates are cooperating with investigators, as is the businesswoman.
Members of Congress and their staffs have expressed concern privately that the Justice Department was less interested in prosecuting Jefferson than in establishing a legal precedent that could be used in other probes -- specifically the widening ethics probe around Abramoff.
The president’s decision to seal the documents was an unusual intervention in a criminal prosecution, but, as chief executive, he controls the entire executive branch, including federal prosecutions. The president not only appoints U.S. attorneys but at least in theory could decide that a particular case should or should not be investigated.
Past controversies involving the president and prosecutions have arisen in the rare circumstance when the chief executive, under political pressure, agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his conduct.
President Nixon appointed special prosecutor Archibald Cox to investigate the Watergate affair and then set the stage for his eventual resignation when he ordered Cox to be fired.
President Clinton agreed to have an independent counsel appointed to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing in the Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater and later clashed with Independent Counsel W. Kenneth Starr.
Times staff writers Faye Fiore, David G. Savage and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.