WASHINGTON – House leaders from both parties asked a federal judge Wednesday to declare the late-night search of Rep. William Jefferson's office unconstitutional, a move that could undermine part of a lengthy bribery investigation of the Louisiana Democrat.
In a 43-page court filing, the House leaders accused the FBI and Justice Department of conducting a heavy-handed search of Jefferson's office May 20-21 and threatening the balance of power in government in the process.
The FBI raid violated "more than 200 years of comity and respect for a coordinated branch of government" when agents showed up unannounced and demanded that the Capitol Police chief let them into Jefferson's office immediately or they would "pick the office door lock."
The House leaders acknowledged that the FBI has every right to investigate Jefferson and said agents had been appropriately aggressive until they launched the surprise raid on the congressman's office in the Rayburn Building.
The Justice Department essentially got greedy, the House leaders said, asserting that investigators already had amassed plenty of evidence against Jefferson, including video- and audio-taped meetings with an informant.
Instead of using what they already have, the House leaders said, the Justice Department approved the Capitol Hill search for more evidence to pile on the case.
When word of the weekend raid got out, congressional leaders cried foul and some lawmakers threatened budgetary retaliation. To ease tension with the House, President Bush stepped in and ordered the material seized in the raid to be sealed until mid-July to give the House and Justice Department time to negotiate a resolution.
Wednesday's court filing was made as senior Democratic leaders summoned Jefferson to a closed-door meeting to discuss his status on various committees. Jefferson has defied a demand from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the party leader, to relinquish his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee until the investigation is resolved.
Leaving the meeting, Jefferson said he has no intention of giving up his seat on the powerful tax-writing committee. "I had a chance to explain my position in the matter," he told reporters. "I agreed that I would not discuss the discussions."
Democrats who assign committee seats met without Jefferson on Tuesday and decided to summon him to Wednesday's session, according to one official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation.
The group, formally known as the Steering Committee, can recommend that Jefferson lose his committee assignment. If the full Democratic caucus ratified such a recommendation, it would go to the House floor for a vote.
Leaving the meeting, Democrats refused to comment. "I'm not going to talk about it," Pelosi said.
Pelosi is one of the House leaders on whose behalf the court filing was made Wednesday with Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan. The others are: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner, Republican Whip Roy Blunt, and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.
A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations with Congress, said the department did not agree with suggestions by House leaders that the target of a Capitol Hill search warrant should be informed ahead of time. The department's position is that such a scenario would place a congressman above the law, the official said.
Hogan, who approved the warrant, plans to hold a hearing June 16.
In the court filing, the House leaders insisted that members of Congress must obey the law. But so too must the Justice Department, they said.
The House leaders said the Justice Department overstepped its authority by allowing FBI agents to remain in Jefferson's office alone for 18 hours. Jefferson's private lawyer, House counsel and the Capitol Police should have been allowed to observe, the House leaders said.
"The agents had to have reviewed every, or virtually every, document in the congressman's office," the House leaders said in the filing by House General Counsel Geraldine R. Gennet.
At issue is a constitutional provision known as the speech and debate clause, which protects senators and representatives from being questioned by the president, a prosecutor or a plaintiff in a lawsuit about their legislative work.
If the search is not invalidated, the House leaders said, the Justice Department could use the threat of similar raids to intimidate Congress into scaling back its oversight of the agency and its components, such as the FBI.