Group Defends FBI Raid of Lawmaker's Office

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Arguing that there was nothing unconstitutional about an FBI search of a congressman's office, a public interest group has filed a brief in the appeal brought by the lawmaker.

The FBI last May 20 searched Rep. William Jefferson's Washington, D.C., office as part of an ongoing bribery and fraud investigation that was related to the Louisiana Democrat's business deals with technology companies in Nigeria and Ghana.

(Earlier, the FBI reportedly found $90,000 in cash in the freezer of Jefferson's home.)

The raid on the Capitol Hill office spurred bipartisan outrage, with lawmakers accusing the executive branch of overstepping its bounds and searching a legislative office in violation of the constitution.

Then House Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the FBI "took the wrong path," and then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also protested.

"Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with constitutional protections and historical precedent so that our government's system of checks and balances are not undermined," Pelosi said.

"These constitutional protections were not devised by our founding fathers to put members above the law, but to protect the independence of the legislative branch and the American people from the abuse of power by the executive branch," she said.

Jefferson argued that documents seized during the search violated the "speech or debate clause" of the Constitution, which states that members of Congress "shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and from the same, and for any speech or debate in either house, they shall not be questioned in any other place."

He sued the federal government to reclaim his documents and lost in July. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has agreed to hear Jefferson's appeal, with oral arguments scheduled for May 15.

Judicial Watch, a government watchdog, disputes the assertion that the FBI action was unconstitutional.

"All of the actions allegedly taken by Congressman Jefferson were allegedly for the sole purpose of using his status as a U.S. Congressman to solidify a business venture in which he stood to make millions of dollars," the organization's president, Tom Fitton, said in a statement Thursday introducing an amicus brief in the case.

"Such actions are anything but official," he said. "The speech or debate clause was not intended to allow members of Congress to conceal corrupt and criminal activity," he said.

"Taking a bribe is not part of the legitimate legislative process," Fitton argued. "The search of Jefferson's office is in compliance with constitutional law, and neither Rep. Jefferson, nor any other member of Congress, is above that law."

According to the brief, Jefferson has "failed to demonstrate that the actions under scrutiny by federal law enforcement officials and the records sought by the search warrant fall within the legitimate legislative sphere. Consequently, the privileges of the speech or debate clause do not apply here."

"Executing a search warrant is fundamentally and constitutionally an executive function, not a role to be delegated to judges or legislators," Judicial Watch said.

Taking an opposing view on the matter, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has also filed a brief in the case, saying that the FBI raid "flies in the face of a 200-year procedure for the executive branch to request documents from the legislative branch."

"An executive branch-directed raid on legislative branch offices -- even with a judicial warrant -- is fundamentally different," Gingrich said in a statement, "because, unlike a home or private office, a legislative branch office serves governmental duties that were designed to be constitutionally independent from -- and in some cases, in opposition to -- the powers of the executive branch."

Gingrich said the raid had taken 18 hours, during which time no legislative branch official was allowed to observe.

"It was the first such FBI raid in American history."

According to the Justice Department, "the speech or debate clause affords important protection to legislators, but it does not afford effective immunity from execution of a search warrant in a Congressman's office."

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