Congressman can review his papers


WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's bribery investigation of Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Democrat, suffered a setback yesterday when a federal appeals court ruled that Jefferson was entitled to review documents investigators seized during a raid of his Capitol Hill office and file objections.

The order from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upsets a ruling by a lower-court judge that the search of Jefferson's office - believed to be the first in congressional history - was proper. It slows the Justice Department investigation of Jefferson, at least temporarily, and heightens the drama in a constitutional showdown between Congress and prosecutors over the rights of lawmakers suspected of engaging in public corruption.

In a terse four-paragraph order, a three-judge panel of the appeals court suggested the lower-court judge had erred by not giving Jefferson an opportunity to review the seized documents and to lodge objections based on his rights under the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution. That clause protects members of Congress from being prosecuted for official "legislative acts."

The appeals court ordered that Jefferson be given copies of the records and computer files that the FBI seized during the raid in May. Jefferson will have two days from the date he receives the material to file objections. The lower-court judge was ordered to then privately review the records and determine whether any should not be turned over to authorities.

U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan had ruled July 10 that procedures the Justice Department established for sorting through Jefferson's records were adequate. Investigators had established a "filter team" composed of agents not on the case to determine whether the records were within the scope of the search warrant and whether any appeared to involve Jefferson's legislative work.

Hogan - who signed the original warrant authorizing the search of the office - expressed concern that giving a congressman an opportunity to review records in advance could frustrate legitimate investigations into criminal wrongdoing and give members of Congress privileges that ordinary citizens do not enjoy.

The documents have been in legal limbo. President Bush ordered them impounded for 45 days while the legal battle worked through the courts.

The appeals-court ruling did not directly address the question of whether the search was legal.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times

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