A federal judge on Monday upheld the FBI’s unprecedented search of the office of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat who is the target of a bribery investigation.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan also denied a request by Jefferson’s lawyers for the return of materials seized in the May raid.
Hogan rejected the argument by Jefferson’s lawyers that the search violated various constitutional protections. It marked the first time U.S. law enforcement agents raided the office of a member of the U.S. Congress.
“It is well-established … that a member of Congress is generally bound to the operation of the criminal laws as are ordinary persons,” Hogan said in the 28-page opinion.
The search caused an uproar in Congress, where both Democratic and Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives were outraged that the FBI had seized a computer hard drive and two boxes of papers from Jefferson’s office while investigating whether he took bribes to promote Internet technology in West Africa.
The U.S. Justice Department considers the FBI search an important part of its public corruption investigation. Two former associates of Jefferson have pleaded guilty to bribery charges. The FBI said it videotaped Jefferson accepting $100,000 in bribe money and found most of it in the freezer in his home.
On May 25, President George W. Bush ordered that the records seized from Jefferson’s office be sealed for 45 days to allow time for the Justice Department and House members to try to work out a possible solution.
INVESTIGATORS TO GET SEIZED MATERIALS
Hogan said Justice Department investigators and prosecutors were now free to regain custody of the seized materials and resume reviewing them.
He rejected the argument that the search violated the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government.
Hogan also ruled that the search was reasonable and that it did not trigger the speech or debate protections of the Constitution, which give lawmakers immunity for their legislative acts.
“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,” he said.
Hogan initially authorized the warrant for the search and upheld it by saying, “The government has demonstrated a compelling need to conduct the search in relation to a criminal investigation involving very serious crimes and has been unable to obtain the evidence sought through any other reasonable means.”
Robert Trout, a lawyer representing Jefferson, said the ruling would be appealed.
“In this case, 15 FBI agents spent 18 hours looking at every piece of paper in the congressman’s office and they carted away his computer hard drive as well as the hard drives of every single member of his staff,” Trout said.
Jefferson, whose district encompasses most of hurricane-wracked New Orleans, has denied wrongdoing and plans to run for re-election in November.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse welcomed the decision, saying it “allows us to move forward in this investigation using the documents that the court has concluded were lawfully obtained.”
(additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Tom Ferraro)
© Reuters 2006