A federal appeals court on Friday barred the Justice Department from reviewing evidence seized from a Louisiana congressman’s office during an unprecedented FBI raid on his Capitol Hill office in May.
A three-judge panel ordered a federal trial judge to ensure that Democratic Rep. William Jefferson be given copies of seized evidence contained on more than a dozen computer hard drives, several floppy disks and two boxes of paper documents.
The panel said Jefferson then must be given the opportunity to invoke legislative privilege claims in private with the trial judge before investigators can review the materials.
The congressman must raise the claims within two days of receiving copies of the seized materials, the panel said.
Jefferson had asked the appeals court to stop the Justice Department from beginning a review of the seized materials by a special team of prosecutors and FBI agents while he appeals a trial judge’s ruling earlier this month upholding the legality of the search.
“We are pleased that in response to our motion for a stay, the Court of Appeals has prohibited the Department of Justice from reviewing the materials seized from the congressman’s office pending further order of the court,” said Robert Trout, Jefferson’s attorney. “We are continuing to study the order and the procedures that recognize the importance of the Speech or Debate Clause.”
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the agency is “pleased the court acted expeditiously. It is clear they understand the importance of moving this matter forward.”
Earlier this month, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan said barring searches of lawmakers’ offices could turn Capitol Hill into “a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime.”
The materials were seized May 20-21 during an 18-hour search of Jefferson’s Rayburn Building office.
The search was part of a 16-month international bribery investigation of Jefferson, who allegedly accepted $100,000 from a telecommunications businessman, $90,000 of which was later recovered in a freezer in the congressman’s Louisiana home.
In his ruling, Hogan rejected requests from Jefferson and a bipartisan group of congressional leaders to return the seized materials, saying the raid did not violate the Constitution’s protections against intimidation of elected officials.
At issue is a constitutional provision known as the speech or debate clause, which protects elected officials from being questioned by the president, a prosecutor or a plaintiff in a lawsuit about their legislative work.
Investigators had held off on reviewing the records because lawmakers on Capitol Hill objected strenuously to the raid, prompting President Bush to order the solicitor general to take custody of the seized materials until Congress and the Justice Department could work out procedures for future raids on congressional offices.
Jefferson has been under investigation since March 2005 for allegedly using his position to promote the sale of telecommunications equipment and services offered by iGate, a Louisville-based firm, that sought contracts with Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations.
In return for his help, Jefferson allegedly demanded stock and cash payments. The congressman has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said Jefferson’s appeal will be placed on hold while Hogan resolves any legislative privilege claims raised by the congressman. The three-judge panel’s members are David B. Sentelle, Janice Rogers Brown and Thomas B. Griffith.
All three judges were appointed by Republican presidents. Sentelle was named to the court by Ronald Reagan; Brown and Griffith, by President Bush in 2005.
© 2006 The Associated Press