Hastert Calls for Return of La. Democrat's Files

Some House leaders, including Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, demand that the FBI return the materials taken out of William Jefferson's office during a raid. But President Bush ordered records seized from the Louisiana Democrat to be sealed for 45 days.

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President Bush weighed in late yesterday on a growing controversy between Congress and the Justice Department that began with an FBI search of the office of a Democratic congressman. The President ordered the Justice Department to seal all the documents associated with Saturday's night raid for 45 days, while the matter is resolved.

Meanwhile, Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert spent yesterday accusing the Department of Justice of intimidation, as NPR's Luke Burbank reports from the capital.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Remember William Jefferson? He's the congressman this FBI search story used to be about, and while he's still in plenty of legal hot water - the FBI claims it videotaped the Louisiana Democrat taking a $100,000 bribe - someone else in Congress has managed to steal almost all the media spotlight away. And that's Speaker Dennis Hastert, the chamber's top Republican.

Unidentified Reporter: What's going on in the Jefferson matter?

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): Thomas Jefferson?

BURBANK: Despite Hastert's attempts at humor, the issue seemed to become his own sort of personal tar pit. The more he said about it, the more stuck he got.

By Wednesday night, ABC was reporting that Hastert himself was under investigation by the FBI for possible involvement in a different corruption case entirely. The Justice Department quickly denied that claim, but by then Hastert was suspicious someone at Justice had purposefully planted false stories about him because of his stand against the search.

Rep. HASTERT: I don't know if this leak out of the Justice Department, or whether it came, was a coincidence or not. But I'll let anybody else try to connect the dots.

BURBANK: By yesterday morning, no one seemed to know where Congressman Jefferson was, but they were sure keeping close tabs on Speaker Hastert, who was still talking.

Rep. HASTERT: We need to protect the division of powers and the Constitution of the United States. And that's one of the things I talked to the President about, that's one of the things we're concerned about in this issue, and it's an ongoing discussion that we have.

BURBANK: Hastert and other House leaders say the search of Jefferson's office violates the Constitutional principle of separate powers, the idea that all three branches of government are co-equals. They've demanded that the FBI return any materials taken out of the office during the raid. Yesterday the President ordered the materials sealed for 45 days, during which time neither side will have access to them.

If Congressman Jefferson was taking any comfort from being out of the spotlight, it didn't last long. Yesterday the leader of his party, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, renewed her call for him to step down from his position on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson, who hasn't yet been charged in the matter, said he respectfully declines Pelosi's request.

Luke Burbank, NPR News, the Capital.

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