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U.S.: 'Unprecedented' FBI Search Of Lawmaker's Office Causes Concern

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (right), shown here with Ukrainian President Yushchenko in April, has come to Jefferson's defense (epa) The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, is investigating a member of Congress suspected of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for helping a small technology company win government contracts and secure business in Africa. An FBI affidavit says it has videotaped evidence of Representative William Jefferson (Democrat-Louisiana) receiving a $100,000 bribe from a government informant whom he believed to be a corrupt official. Based on that and other evidence, federal agents searched his Capitol Hill office during the weekend. Now senior members of Congress, including Republicans, are coming to his defense by arguing that the search of Jefferson's office violated the U.S. Constitution.

WASHINGTON, May 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A week ago, Jefferson was defiant about the growing investigation.

Speaking his home city of New Orleans, he said he would not shift blame.

"I will take full responsibility for any crimes that I committed, if that were the case. But I will not plead guilty to something I did not do, no matter how things are made to look, and no matter the risk."

But Jefferson's mood yesterday was far more subdued as he spoke to reporters in Washington.

"Well, uh, I -- I can't talk about, uh -- uh, uh -- the, um, uh, facts of the matter, and therefore, um, I -- I won't make a response to that," he said.

He insisted, however, that there are two sides to every story and that he would present his side at the appropriate time.

Concern In Congress

What muted his temperament was an affidavit released by the FBI giving details of its investigation. For example, it cited the video of him receiving the $100,000 bribe. It said it found $90,000 of that payment in the freezer of one of his homes.

The search of Jefferson's legislative office by the FBI was unprecedented, according to Capitol historians.

The affidavit also says an informant posing as a bribe-giver was wired with a microphone during a conversation with Jefferson in which the congressman demanded illegal payments.

It says Jefferson and the informant even passed notes during a dinner in which the politician sought more money.

At one point, according to the affidavit, Jefferson laughingly referred to what he called "all these damn notes we're writing to each other as if we're talking -- as if the FBI is watching."

Questioning Constitutionality

While Jefferson wouldn't comment on his guilt or innocence, he had plenty to say on May 22 about the search of his office, calling it "an outrageous intrusion" on the separation of powers of the three branches of the U.S. government: the executive branch, or presidency; the legislative branch, and the judiciary.

Under the Constitution, these branches may not infringe on each other's authority. Yet the weekend search of Jefferson's legislative office by the FBI -- which is part of the Justice Department in the executive branch -- was unprecedented, according to Capitol historians.

Jefferson's assertion of an "outrageous intrusion" by the FBI is supported by none other than his political archenemies: the Republican leaders of the House and the Senate. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Republican-Illinois) issued a statement vowing to restore what he called "this delicate balance of power."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Republican-Tennessee) also expressed concern, and said congressional lawyers were looking into the constitutionality of the search.

"I am very concerned as well [about] what happened over the weekend, and our counsel is in discussion [about the matter]," Frist said.

Citizen Worry

The questions about the propriety of the search are based on the so-called "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution, according to Mark Tushnet, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University in Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Tushnet says investigators from the executive branch may not question a member of the legislative branch about his official conduct "in any other place" -- that is, in court. The rule is meant to protect the political independence of legislators.

Tushnet says Jefferson, Hastert, and Frist apply this rule to the search of Jefferson's office because the results of the search could be used in court.

According to Tushnet, ordinary citizens could be anxious about the prospect of Justice Department investigators rifling the offices of their elected representatives.

"The law says, look for evidence of a bribe, but when you're looking for evidence of the bribe you may turn up a letter from a constituent revealing personal information that the constituent wouldn't want revealed," he said. "So there are real issues at stake about how ordinary people should react to executive investigations of members of Congress. There are real questions there. It's not just a turf battle."

Still, Tushnet says, he doesn't think law enforcement officials should be prevented from searching an office in Congress if they have persuasive evidence that a member has taken a bribe.

Tushnet dismisses concerns that allowing such searches would open the door to broader abuses by investigators or their bosses. After all, he argues, any authority is open to abuse, and a society has to allow its agents some authority or government would never accomplish anything.

More to the point, Tushnet says, he doubts that the questions raised about the propriety of the search of Jefferson's office will interfere with the government's ability to prosecute the congressman.

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