WASHINGTON -- A federal judge held yesterday that an FBI search of the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, was lawfully conducted, ruling that members of Congress who become the targets of criminal investigations generally deserve no more protection under the law than ordinary citizens.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan was a blow both to Jefferson, the focus of a federal bribery probe, and to the House leadership, a bipartisan group of which had supported his appeal.
The issue was the scope of the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution, which protects members of Congress from being questioned or prosecuted for their legislative activities.
Jefferson and the House leaders had argued that the search was unconstitutional because FBI agents had combed through "protected" material during their 18-hour search for evidence on May 20-21.
They contended that Jefferson should have first been given the opportunity to review his files before the investigators moved in.
No such right
But Hogan said that right did not exist.
"Congressman Jefferson's interpretation of the Speech or Debate privilege would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime," the judge wrote.
The possibility that some legislative materials might have been "incidentally captured" by FBI investigators did not make the entire search illegal, Hogan said, adding that any materials covered by the "speech or debate" privilege could not be used against Jefferson in court if he is charged with a crime.
Hogan ordered that two boxes of papers and copies of computer hard drives seized during the raid be returned to the Justice Department so that prosecutors could continue their investigation of Jefferson, which began more than a year ago.
The congressman's lawyers are believed to be seeking an order blocking the release pending an appeal of yesterday's decision. The Justice Department is not expected to oppose that move.
Jefferson is being investigated to determine whether he accepted bribes and used his position to influence business deals in Africa in which he or family members had an interest.
A former staff member has pleaded guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe Jefferson and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
A separate search of Jefferson's Washington home last year turned up $90,000 in foil-wrapped bills in his freezer. That money was part of an FBI sting involving an informant.
The raid on a House member's office - believed to be the first in congressional history - is reflective of a Justice Department effort to root out public corruption that has targeted a number of members of Congress.
But it has provoked concern among House leaders who view the case as a test of Congress' independence. Members are also anxious about who the department might be targeting next.
President Bush ordered the documents sealed shortly after the search in May and urged the two sides to negotiate a truce. The 45-day order sealing the documents expired yesterday.
At Bush's behest, lawyers for the Justice Department and the House have also been discussing procedures for handling future searches of congressional offices. But that process does not appear close to a resolution, and the judge's emphatic ruling, though not unexpected, is not likely to soften the two sides' respective positions.
"The raid on Congressman Jefferson's office was unprecedented, unnecessary, and unconstitutional," Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, said in a prepared statement. "While a congressman is not above the law, the executive branch must also follow the law."
Plan to appeal
Trout said Jefferson would appeal the ruling.
House leaders said they continued to believe the FBI had acted imprudently.
"This particular search could have been conducted in a manner that fully protected the ability of the prosecutors to obtain the evidence needed to do their job while preserving constitutional principles," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
She said the House hoped to develop procedures with Justice Department negotiators to "maintain the constitutional balance between the legislative and executive branches of government."
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the ruling "allows us to move forward in this investigation using the documents that the court has concluded were lawfully obtained."
He said the department would continue to work with Congress about "harmonizing policies and procedures for possible future searches."
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.