Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI director Robert S. Mueller III said this week were prepared to quit if the White House directed them to relinquish evidence seized in a disputed search of a House member’s office.
Citing government officials, the The New York Times reported that Gonzalez was joined in raising the possibility of resignation by the deputy attorney general, Paul McNulty, who told associates that they had an obligation to protect evidence in a criminal case and would not be willing to follow a White House order to return the material to Congress.
McNulty, the newspaper said, was instrumental in the resignation threats.
Bush Thursday ordered the evidence sealed for 45 days to give Congress and Justice a chance to work out a deal, averting the mass resignations for the moment.
The FBI seized evidence last Saturday from the office of Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat. House leaders objected, saying they had violated the Constitution, and demanded that Justice return the evidence.
Former associates have said Jefferson accepted more than $400,000 in bribes to help them sell telecommunications technology to Nigeria and other West African countries.
Two of those associates have pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and the FBI disclosed on Sunday it has videotaped Jefferson accepting bribe money and has found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.
House leaders, both Republican and Democratic, reacted strongly to the raid, saying it violated Constitutional separation of powers. Legal experts, however, disagree with the politicians, saying it only violating “tradition” and no the letter of the law.
The Congressional protests sparked widespread public outcry over what many Americans see as yet another example of elected officials feeling they are above the law.