Justice Officials Defend Capitol Hill Search

Top members of the Justice Department say they will resign if forced to return evidence seized during a raid on the Capitol Hill offices of Rep. William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat under investigation for bribery.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This week an unprecedented search of a Congressional office by the FBI flared to into a Constitutional confrontation between two branches of government. According to reports in this morning's Washington Post and New York Times, that clash grew so intense that top law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, discussed quitting if things didn't go their way.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is here to explain what happened.

Hello, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So let's start with the background. How did things get so heated?

SHAPIRO: It started a week ago. The FBI raided the office of Congressman William Jefferson, who's a Democrat from Louisiana. He was caught on video allegedly taking $100,000 in bribes. And then later the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer. They had a search warrant, but they didn't have permission from Congress to go search his Congressional offices. And they hadn't consulted anyone else about it either.

ELLIOTT: And that didn't sit so well with Congressional leaders, I take it.

SHAPIRO: To say the least. House Speaker Dennis Hastert called it a Constitutional violation. He pointed out that this was the first time in the 217 year history of Congress that anything like this had happened. He demanded that the files be returned. And it was kind of surreal, because Hastert had been a pretty staunch defender of the President. And here he's defying the Executive Branch to defend a Democrat.

ELLIOTT: How does the Justice Department defend the search?

SHAPIRO: Well, they weren't as publicly vocal as Congress was. But privately, they said look, we had a court order, we had the guy on tape allegedly taking these bribes. We were just following the crime where it leads. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the search was unusual, but so were the actions that the Congressman was alleged to have taken.

ELLIOTT: What do we know from this morning's reports?

SHAPIRO: Well, the Justice Department and the FBI are keeping mum about this. But according to the reports in the papers this morning, apparently as tensions rose this week the three top law enforcement officers in the country discussed resigning if the President ordered them to return the files. That would be Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his deputy, Paul McNulty, and the FBI Director, Robert Mueller.

And according to today's news stories, McNulty was the one who led this conversation about possible resignations. In his confirmation hearings last February, he had explicitly said I will resign rather than compromise my principles.

ELLIOTT: But McNulty did not resign. Neither did the others.

SHAPIRO: No. On Thursday, President Bush ordered what you could consider sort of a time out. He said he was going to seal the files for 45 days. And that would give everyone sort of a chance to cool off and reach a compromise on the issue.

ELLIOTT: Why all the hoopla over this case?

SHAPIRO: Well, one theory is that it's really not about this Democratic Congressman from Louisiana. The Justice Department has been more assertive about investigating corruption on Capitol Hill. There's the Jack Abramoff lobbying investigation, the issue of Congressman Randy Duke Cunningham. And these investigations have touched on Republican members of Congress, including some people who have been committee chairs or members of the leadership.

It makes them nervous. And they feel as though this investigation might be going a little too far. So as the probe goes forward, members of Congress want to make sure there are clear rules about what can be investigated, where it can be investigated, and what the standards are for that investigation. And they hope that that's what's going to be laid out over the next 45 days.

ELLIOTT: Thanks so much, NPR's Ari Shapiro.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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