Justice or politics?

There is no cash wrapped in foil in my freezer. Nothing but ice, some past-its-prime meat, and vegetables. I would think that any self-respecting burglar would check the freezer these days.

The FBI, which also checks freezers, says it found $90,000 in cash wrapped up in the freezer of Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La. This has caused a firestorm on Capitol Hill, one that should interest Americans.

Jefferson is being investigated for possible public corruption. The FBI claims it videotaped him accepting $100,000 in marked $100 bills stuffed in a briefcase in a sting operation involving alleged bribery and influence peddling. The freezer money allegedly is part of that operation, taped last July.

A number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are outraged at what they view as an unconstitutional breach of the separation of powers doctrine and the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution. That gives members of Congress some protection from legal action while on official business.

They are claiming that the executive branch of government had no right to stage a raid on Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office, which 15 agents of the FBI recently did for 18 hours.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, as solid a Republican as they come, says he will hold hearings. He has titled his probe, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

Jefferson, in his eighth term, has been a harsh critic of the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated his state. He has not been charged with any crime and vows he is innocent of wrongdoing. He has gone to court to try to get the material confiscated by the FBI returned to him uncopied and unread.

A number of legislators are backing him, arguing that they are appalled by the idea of federal agents ransacking a congressional office looking for documents Jefferson refused to hand over. They conjure up a made-for-TV-movie scenario whereby White House aides could raid any legislator’s office for political reasons, using possible corruption as a pretext.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., usually at loggerheads, issued a statement protesting the raid: “No person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation.”

The problem for the White House is that it has so damaged relations with both parties on Capitol Hill that such a farfetched idea of political hanky panky by the White House using FBI agents no longer seems farfetched. This is a president who signed 750 bills with his fingers crossed behind his back, meaning that in separate memos he stipulated that if he didn’t want to enforce them, he wouldn’t.

Time after time, President Bush has arrogantly alienated Congress. If there is anyone at fault for the lack of good vibes between the White House and Capital Hill right now, it is Bush _ he came to town promising comity, but has done nothing to bring it about. He has failed to reassure a majority of Americans that the pursuit of terrorists has not shredded their civil liberties.

However, there is also another principle here. The public deserves to know if its lawmakers are corrupt. How can they reliably know if the Department of Justice’s investigating arms are tied? Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., is already in jail. New scandals seem to pop forth regularly. Some say the breath of corruption on Capitol Hill is just about as putrid as it has ever been. Democrats have been saying for months there is a “culture of corruption” in the GOP-controlled Congress. They just didn’t expect a Democrat to be targeted.

While the Constitution is clear that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are separate and equal, I can’t see any constitutional violation in a properly conducted FBI search based on months of investigation and a valid warrant. This was not a fishing expedition and was vetted by top Justice officials who knew there would be a political explosion.

Pelosi and Hastert are not defending Jefferson per se, but are seeking to avoid a precedent of acquiescence to searches of congressional offices. They are correct that nobody is above the law. And the law gives law enforcement officials the right and duty to search for evidence within certain, well-established limits.

Just about everyone agrees the bribery-laden atmosphere on Capitol Hill needs cleansing and that the ethics committees have balked at doing the job.

If the FBI is carefully monitored and the courts are properly watchful, then let’s get on with it.

But, really, Mr. Jefferson. Cold cash in the freezer? Couldn’t you do better than that? There are reasons 75 percent of Americans say they’re disgusted with Congress.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)