WASHINGTON—Trying to avert a showdown with the House of Representatives over the Constitution's powers, President Bush on Thursday ordered the FBI to stop examining files seized from a congressman's office last weekend while the House and the Justice Department negotiate a way out of their confrontation.
In a highly unusual intervention, the president ordered that files taken by the FBI from the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., be sealed for 45 days and held in the custody of the solicitor general.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., displayed rare bipartisan outrage this week over the FBI raid of Jefferson's office. They argued that it violated a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution—the independence of the three co-equal branches of government, legislative, executive and judicial. Never before has an executive police agency raided a congressional office.
"I recognize these are deeply held views," Bush said. "Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries."
In a joint statement following the president's announcement, Hastert and Pelosi said they had directed House lawyers to negotiate with the Justice Department to establish procedures for obtaining "evidence of criminal conduct that might exist in the offices of members."
Legal experts say the Justice Department could seek the appointment of a special master to examine the seized documents and determine which ones are relevant to the investigation.
According to lawmakers who were briefed by the Justice Department, the agents carted away one box of records from Jefferson's office.
The FBI-House confrontation has roiled Washington politics.
In a radio interview Thursday that his office distributed to reporters, Hastert suggested that a report by ABC News Wednesday evening linking him to a federal influence-peddling investigation was an attempt by Justice to bully him for his opposition to the FBI's raid on Jefferson's office.
The Justice Department denied that Hastert is under investigation shortly after the ABC News report.
"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people, and we're just not going to be intimidated by it," Hastert said on WGN radio in Chicago. "This is about trying to kind of smoke-screen some of the separation of power stuff that we're doing."
Some lawmakers have complained that the objections from Hastert and Pelosi appear self-serving and could prove to be politically embarrassing.
"They're saying a congressman's office is a safe haven ... sort of like an embassy, where traditionally you stash incriminating evidence," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La. "The position they seem to be taking is indefensible."
Because Jefferson is a Democrat, Hastert has some political cover. But the Justice Department is also investigating Republicans as an outgrowth of guilty pleas by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and some of his associates on charges that they illegally tried to influence legislative action.
Pelosi, meanwhile, has irritated some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Jefferson is a member, for asking Jefferson to give up his seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law. Several members of the caucus have complained that Jefferson hasn't been charged with a crime and that the accusations against him have nothing to do with his work on the committee.
An affidavit filed in court to obtain last weekend's search warrant accuses Jefferson of taking a $100,000 bribe. It says $90,000 in cash was discovered hidden in his home freezer.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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