House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner said on Tuesday he plans to draft legislation that would protect congressional material during searches by government investigators.
Sensenbrenner also said he wanted to call Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller to testify about their justification for the unprecedented raid on the office of Rep. William Jefferson, the target of a bribery investigation.
Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, said at a hearing on the raid that his bill could avoid a repeat of last week’s standoff between congressional leaders and the Bush administration after the search of Jefferson’s Capitol Hill office.
“We want to make sure that when the next congressman is investigated for illegal activity that the procedure done by the Justice Department is right,” Sensenbrenner said.
The FBI obtained a court warrant before searching the office of Jefferson, a Louisiana Democratic, but lawmakers from both parties said the raid violated constitutional protections designed to shield lawmakers from executive-branch harassment.
The papers and computer hard drive seized in the raid have been placed under seal for 45 days as Congress and the Justice Department try to resolve their dispute.
The House general counsel sent a letter to Gonzalez on Tuesday seeking a meeting with Justice Department lawyers as early as next week to discuss procedures for obtaining evidence from House offices that would pass constitutional muster.
Sensenbrenner scheduled Tuesday’s hearing to discuss the raid even though Congress is out of session for the week. He said he plans to call Gonzales and Mueller to testify at a second hearing.
Several legal experts told the Judiciary Committee the FBI had taken a heavy-handed approach during the raid.
In a court filing, the Justice Department said it had set up a “rigorous set of search procedures” to prevent anyone actually involved in the prosecution from seeing any documents that have nothing to do with the case.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said Sensenbrenner should look for inspiration to the Privacy Protection Act of 1980, which says that journalists don’t have to hand over notes and other work materials to law enforcers.
Sensenbrenner said he was considering such an approach.
“I think this law will help the Justice Department get it right next time because they didn’t get it right this time,” he said.
Jefferson is being investigated for his involvement in an African technology venture. The FBI says it videotaped him accepting $100,000 in bribe money, most of which later turned up in his freezer.
A businessman has pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson with $400,000 in cash for his help, while a former congressional aide was sentenced to eight years in prison on Friday for his role in the scheme.
In a court filing, an FBI agent said Jefferson had tried to conceal documents during a raid on his New Orleans house last summer.
Jefferson has maintained his innocence and refused to give up his seat or his committee assignments.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles)
© 2006 Reuters