WASHINGTON—The Republican speaker of the House of Representatives and the House Democratic leader, in an exceptional display of unity, escalated a constitutional confrontation with the Bush administration on Wednesday over the FBI's weekend seizure of files from a congressional office.
In a rare joint statement, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., demanded that the Justice Department return documents that the FBI seized from the offices of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., as part of a bribery investigation.
Hastert and Pelosi challenged the raid as violating the Constitution's separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.
"In addition, the Justice Department must immediately cease any further review of the documents it unconstitutionally seized, ensure that those who have reviewed the documents do not divulge their contents to the investigators, and move in court to vitiate the search warrant," the two congressional leaders said.
The FBI raid occurred Saturday night when 15 agents armed with a warrant entered Jefferson's congressional offices and pored over his files until Sunday afternoon.
Jefferson, an eight-term incumbent, hasn't been formally charged with any crime, but the FBI accused him of taking bribes in an affidavit filed with the search warrant. The affidavit says that law officers discovered $90,000 in suspected bribe money hidden in frozen-food containers in his freezer. Two of his associates have been charged in connection with the investigation. Jefferson this week declared his innocence but wouldn't discuss details of the case.
Earlier Wednesday, Hastert also demanded that agents who may have reviewed Jefferson's files be "frozen out" from the case.
One law enforcement official familiar with the investigation expressed surprise at the stance taken by the House leaders.
"The implications of what they're asking for are huge," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to permit candor about a case involving powerful lawmakers. "They're asking that the FBI return documents to a target in the middle of a law enforcement investigation."
Justice Department officials and congressional aides were in discussions throughout the day to address lawmakers' objections without damaging the investigation.
The Justice Department repudiated an ABC News report Wednesday evening that Hastert was under FBI investigation as part of its probe into corruption among members of Congress.
"Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department," said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman, after the ABC News report was aired.
Congressional leaders welcomed Hastert's aggressive stance against the administration on behalf of Congress' independent authority.
"You don't want to have executive branch people coming to a congressional office on their whim," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.
The reaction from lawmakers partly reflects frustration over Bush's attempts throughout his presidency to expand the reach of executive power, often at the expense of Congress and the courts. "The founders envisioned a separation of powers, and sometimes we've been too timid about exerting that," Davis said.
Hastert and Pelosi said the Justice Department violated both the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine and its more obscure "speech or debate" clause, which essentially protects members of Congress from interference when the members are conducting official duties.
The clause states that members "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 returning from the same."
Separately, Pelosi sent Jefferson a terse letter Wednesday urging him to relinquish his seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Congressional lawyers haven't found any precedent in the history of the House and Senate similar to the Jefferson document seizure. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the FBI's actions "could have a chilling impact on the legislative branch's ability to function."
Sensenbrenner scheduled a committee hearing for next Tuesday titled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
In a statement Wednesday, the Justice Department said it had tried since August to obtain the documents "through other means and were unable to do so."
"There is tremendous respect for Congress's important, independent role, but the department has an obligation to the American people to fully pursue corruption cases wherever the trail of evidence goes," the statement by Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.
One constitutional scholar suggested that the Department of Justice could appoint a special master who would review the files and determine which ones were relevant to the investigation and which ones weren't.
"The question is, what is the protection to make sure that the files that have nothing to do with criminal activity aren't taken away," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of law and political science at Duke University. "When lawyers' offices are searched, often it is done with a special master to see what is related to criminal activity and what is confidential and unrelated."
The clash with the White House over the documents comes as the Justice Department is conducting a number of investigations into public corruption that could snare Democrats and Republicans alike. Some Republicans worried that voters would gloss over the constitutional issues involved and conclude that Congress was acting out of self-interest.
"Given the attitudes that voters have toward Congress..., directing their fire at the administration on this issue seems wrong-headed and unbelievably misguided," said one Republican campaign consultant who works closely with Republican congressional candidates. The consultant was granted anonymity to speak candidly about his views.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., objected strenuously to the leadership criticism of the FBI raid. Frist has raised concerns similar to Hastert's and has asked the Senate Rules Committee to look into the issue.
"Make no mistake," Vitter, a freshman senator, wrote on Wednesday, "the American people will come to one conclusion—that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): DENNIS HASTERT, NANCY PELOSI
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