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Raid on Rep. Jefferson's Office Yields Legal Mess

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Raid on Rep. Jefferson's Office Yields Legal Mess


Raid on Rep. Jefferson's Office Yields Legal Mess

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It was a year ago this week that the FBI, for the first time in history, raided the office of a member of Congress. Agents carted off documents and computer hard drives belonging to Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson. Then the case seemed to disappear.

Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY: The big mystery is why the FBI raided Jefferson's office in the first place. He has always insisted on his innocence, as he did in the media clamor after the raid.

Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): There are two sides to every story. There are certainly two sides to this story. There will be an appropriate time and forum when that can be explained and explicated.

OVERBY: But read the affidavit of the FBI agent seeking the search warrant and you'd think you are reading a grand jury indictment. The affidavit alleges that Jefferson agreed to help a company make deals in Nigeria and Ghana, provided that he and his family got a cut of the action.

It says that agents videotaped Jefferson taking a briefcase with $100,000 in marked bills and that they found most of those bills later in a freezer at Jefferson's house. It notes that two other targets of the investigation pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges. And it goes on from there.

But Jefferson and some congressional legal experts say the raid on his office violated the Constitution. The speech-or-debate clause protects federal lawmakers in their legislative duties. So why, asks Melanie Sloan of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, why did the FBI go for that search warrant?

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government): That's the $64 million question.

OVERBY: And yesterday three federal appeals judges quizzed lawyers for Jefferson and the Justice Department. Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, said in court, and again in an interview, that the speech-or-debate clause is an absolute protection.

Mr. ROBERT TROUT (Jefferson's Lawyer): Which means that the members have the absolute right to shield their legislative activities from forced or involuntary disclosure. But in this case the FBI went into a congressional office and for the first time in our country's history conducted a wholesale search and seizure.

OVERBY: The Justice Department argues that it didn't violate the speech-or-debate clause because one set of agents seized the documents and another set of agents will use them after the court gives permission. This debate is why the Jefferson case has been tied up for a year.

Meanwhile, House Democrats removed Jefferson from the Ways and Means Committee. Republicans pointed to him as evidence of Democratic corruption. His constituents in New Orleans re-elected him. And, Trout point out, Jefferson has sorted through the seized documents.

Mr. TROUT: We have had an opportunity to review documents for privilege and we have completed our review, and it's now pending before the court.

OVERBY: How many pages are we talking about here?

Mr. TROUT: About 47,000 pages.

OVERBY: Jefferson claims privilege for nearly half of them. At least one of the judges yesterday seemed openly skeptical that the government is entitled to see any of them.

Melanie Sloan - no fan of Jefferson's - says the raid could undermine the whole case against him.

Ms. SLOAN: While I certainly believe that the Justice Department had every right to search the congressional office, that congressional offices are not sacrosanct, it was clearly an unwise decision in this case, because it is in fact holding up the prosecution of a sitting congressman who is very likely a criminal.

OVERBY: An allegation that Sloan can make but one that the Justice Department now seems a long way from proving.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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