Bush orders seal on Jefferson documents

Amid Congress-Justice clash, materials to be held 45 days

May 26, 2006|By MAURA REYNOLDS AND RICHARD B. SCHMITT | MAURA REYNOLDS AND RICHARD B. SCHMITT,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush intervened yesterday to defuse an increasingly contentious 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 J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, who is under investigation for bribery.

"This period will provide both parties more time to resolve the issues in a way that ensures that materials relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation are made available to prosecutors in a manner that respects the interests of a coequal branch of government," Bush said in a statement. "The Justice Department and the House of Representatives should continue their discussions and resolve this matter as quickly as possible."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, accepted the olive branch from the White House but said he stood by his position that the search warrant served on Jefferson was a violation of the "separation of powers" between Congress and the executive branch.

"This gives everybody a chance to step back," Hastert said after meeting with fellow Republicans, whose cheers at the announcement were audible outside their meeting room in the basement of the Capitol.

Hastert insisted he was defending the Constitution, not a potentially corrupt congressman.

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 site.

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 was necessary after Jefferson had resisted a subpoena. Investigators have searched his home, where they retrieved $90,000 in marked bills wrapped in foil in his freezer. Earlier, he was videotaped accepting the money from a Virginia businesswoman.

Congressional leaders argue that the Constitution protects lawmakers from such searches. They have offered to develop procedures for making available materials connected to a criminal investigation.

Tensions between House Republicans and the White House have been building for months, and the Jefferson dispute appeared to be a last straw.

Members have complained that the White House has often ignored their views, from forcing them into an unwanted debate over Social Security to being politically tone-deaf on issues such as leasing U.S. ports to a Dubai company.

White House officials would not say whether Bush spoke personally to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales about the raid, but said that there had been "ongoing discussions" since the raid with officials from Justice and the House.

Bush ordered that the U.S. solicitor general be responsible for ensuring the documents remain under seal for 45 days.

That office is a Justice Department arm that represents the government before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gonzales, who approved the search of Jefferson's office, issued a statement saying that 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 continuing 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 because of the investigation, said Justice Department negotiators were adamant that the department not relinquish the seized materials because it could compromise the investigation. The official said some senior department officials were prepared to submit their resignations if Bush had ordered them returned.

Spokesman Tony Snow has said that the White House did not know about the search in advance. Yesterday, he said the White House counsel's office first learned of the raid from an e-mail that was sent while agents were in Jefferson's office, stating simply that a search warrant was being executed.

Jefferson 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 staff 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 investigations - specifically the widening ethics probe around Abramoff.

Maura Reynolds and Richard B. Schmitt write for the Los Angeles Times.

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