Sen. Ted Stevens accused the Justice Department of trampling on the independence of Congress, arguing Thursday that the corruption case against him should be thrown out.
That legal argument will test the limits of a court ruling that prosecutors fear could limit their ability to investigate corruption on Capitol Hill. Stevens said FBI agents went too far when they questioned his Senate aides.
The Alaska Republican is scheduled to go on trial next month on charges that he lied on Senate disclosure records about hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and services he received from a powerful oil services contractor, VECO Corp. The allegations include that VECO remodeled his home at a discount.
Stevens said the FBI’s long-running corruption probe intruded on his Senate affairs. He cited the Constitution’s speech or debate clause, which prohibits the executive branch from using its law enforcement authority to interfere with legislative business.
The Justice Department predicted this would happen after an appeals court ruled last year that the FBI violated the Constitution by searching the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.). The Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case, and prosecutors said lawmakers had begun arguing that their aides could not be questioned.
Legislative staffers have proved to be crucial witnesses in recent corruption cases. If Stevens prevails on this issue, it would be a blow to the Justice Department’s power.
Anticipating Stevens’ argument, the Justice Department filed its own court documents Thursday night, saying legislative speech issues were irrelevant.
“The government’s criminal case against Sen. Stevens is not based on his legislative activities, but on his receipt of financial benefits and his need to conceal those benefits from public scrutiny,” prosecutors wrote.