July 10, 2006

Judge upholds FBI’s search of lawmaker’s office

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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

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.


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

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)