GOP defends La. Democrat

Search of Jefferson's office called improper

May 24, 2006|By MAURA REYNOLDS

WASHINGTON -- In a rare display of concern for a member of the opposition party, Republican congressional leaders rose to the defense yesterday of a Democratic congressman under investigation for possible bribery, accusing the Justice Department of improperly searching his Capitol Hill office.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said the separation of powers guaranteed in the Constitution means that agencies of the executive branch have no right to raid and 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 said.

"I have got to believe at the end of the day it is going to end up across the street at the Supreme Court. I don't see anything short of that."

The Justice Department defended the Saturday night raid, during which FBI investigators reportedly seized documents from the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat. Investigators had previously found $90,000 in cash in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home.

The application for the search warrant, released Sunday, indicated that agents were seeking "computer hardware and software and other digital or electronic media," along with documents such as travel logs and letters to officials in Ghana.

At a news conference yesterday, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said, "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."

Jefferson, 59, represents New Orleans and is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

According to an affidavit accompanying the request for the search warrant, he was videotaped by the FBI in July 2005 accepting $100,000 in cash from a Virginia businesswoman 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 becoming suspicious 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 aide on Jefferson's staff 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 yesterday. Over the weekend, he called the search "outrageous."

"There were no exigent circumstances necessitating this action," he said. "The government knew that the documents were being appropriately preserved while proper procedures were being followed."

Gonzales said yesterday that federal agents resorted to the search of Jefferson's office only after they were unable to reach an agreement to get the evidence they sought through a subpoena.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, suggested in a statement that the Justice Department had not exhausted the subpoena process before resorting to a search warrant.

It was not immediately 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 of the office was blacked out when the affidavit was released.

Former House counsel Stanley Brand, a Washington attorney, 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. You go to court and try to enforce the subpoena. You have to go through process," Brand said. "I just think it's over the top."

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the search poses 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," he said.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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