WASHINGTON – Prosecutors and investigators building a bribery case against Rep. William Jefferson have been unable to examine the documents and computer files seized in a search of the lawmaker's Capitol Hill office.
The materials were placed off limits by President Bush for 45 days, a cooling-off period that ended Sunday. Yet there has been no resolution of the court fight or talks between congressional leaders and the Justice Department.
The president acted after congressional leaders denounced the FBI's search on May 20 and May 21 as an unprecedented and unconstitutional intrusion on their turf by federal agents.
Bush directed Solicitor General Paul Clement to keep the materials while Justice Department officials negotiated with Congress' lawyers and a legal challenge made its way through the federal courts.
Until the judge in the case rules on the constitutionality of the search, prosecutors will not examine what it yielded, department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who signed the warrant authorizing the search, indicated at a hearing last month that he was likely to reject the main argument advanced by Jefferson, D-La., and House lawyers that the Constitution's speech or debate clause prohibits searches of congressional offices.
That clause protects senators and representatives from being questioned by the president, a prosecutor or a plaintiff in a lawsuit about their legislative work.
"The speech-or-debate clause is not a hide-and-conceal clause," Hogan said.
Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing. But a business executive has pleaded guilty to paying Jefferson more than $400,000 in bribes. An affidavit filed with Hogan to justify the May search also says the FBI videotaped Jefferson in August 2005 accepting $100,000 from another business executive, who actually was a government informant. The FBI said it recovered $90,000 from a freezer in Jefferson's home.
Separately, negotiators for Congress and the Justice Department are seeking to develop procedures in case the FBI again feels the need to search lawmakers' offices.
While federal agents had never searched a congressional office before entering Jefferson's, some lawmakers fear the FBI could return to Capitol Hill for searches growing out of the broad corruption investigation linked to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In the Jefferson case, government lawyers have objected to providing advance notification to the target of the search or his agents and to allowing him access to the scene while the search is taking place.
Lawmakers have said they should have the ability to review documents before deciding whether they can be seized in a search. Justice Department lawyers said members of Congress do not warrant such special treatment.