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GOP, Dems blast FBI for searching congressional office

Lawmaker files motion demanding FBI return confiscated papers

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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
William Jefferson

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Though no one actually defended embattled Rep. William Jefferson, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined House Republicans on Wednesday in expressing outrage over the FBI's recent search of the congressman's legislative office.

Pelosi, D-California, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, released a joint statement Wednesday saying that the FBI should immediately return all documents it "unconstitutionally seized" Saturday from Jefferson's office.

The sharply worded statement came just hours after Pelosi sent a letter to the Louisiana Democrat, urging him to resign his post on the House Ways and Means Committee, a request Jefferson refused.

Jefferson, 59, is being investigated for allegedly accepting bribes, but he has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. Last week, as the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into the allegations, Jefferson declared he would run for re-election this year. (Watch how the FBI constructed its case -- 1:28)

A search of Jefferson's home in August uncovered $90,000 cash in his freezer, which according to an affidavit was part of a $100,000 bribe an informant gave to Jefferson. The FBI has the transaction on tape, the affidavit said. (Full story)

Earlier this month, Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson pleaded guilty in federal court to giving Jefferson $400,000 in bribes so the congressman would help him promote high-tech business ventures in Africa.

In January, former Jefferson aide Brett Pfeffer pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official. Jackson and Pfeffer have agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Dems, GOP join forces

Pelosi and Hastert said in their statement that Saturday's FBI search violated the principle of separation of powers and the speech or debate clause in Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution.

Pelosi and Hastert allege that the separation of power principle was violated because the Department of Justice, which governs the FBI and is an offshoot of the executive branch, searched the office of a congressman, a member of the legislative branch.

Their Wednesday statement says that the Justice Department "must immediately cease any further review of the documents it unconstitutionally seized, ensure those who have reviewed the documents do not divulge their contents to the investigators, and move in Court to vitiate the search warrant."

Both said Jefferson should cooperate with investigators, but only after the documents are returned, according to the statement.

Using the same constitutional arguments cited by Hastert and Pelosi, Jefferson's attorneys filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Wednesday seeking return of property taken from Jefferson's office in the raid and that law enforcement authorities be prevented from reviewing any of the materials.

"The unprecedented search of the representative's office offends the separation of powers embodied in the United States Constitution and violates the absolute privilege and immunity that members of Congress enjoy under the speech or debate clause of Article 1, Section 6," the motion declared.

They also contend the search was unreasonable because requests by one of Jefferson's attorneys and by the House's general counsel to witness the search were rebuffed.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, also announced he will hold a hearing Tuesday to address "profoundly disturbing constitutional questions" raised by the search.

Jefferson search a first?

Hastert has said the search represents the first time a lawmaker's office has been searched in U.S. history, but the Justice Department says it has conducted similar searches.

Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said Wednesday said that similar searches have been conducted in the past, including searches of federal judges' chambers and the private residences of congressmen.

"We believe our actions were lawful and necessary under these very unique circumstances," he said.

In an affidavit filed in support of the search warrant for Jefferson's office, prosecutors said they had "exhausted all other reasonable methods to obtain these records in a timely manner."

Jefferson and his attorneys insist they were trying to reach an agreement with investigators on turning over materials from his office that were under subpoena.

A call to step down

Though Pelosi backed her colleague in regard to the search, a letter Pelosi sent hours earlier asking Jefferson to resign from a House committee post was not supportive.

"In the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus, I am writing to request your immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee," Pelosi wrote to Jefferson early Wednesday afternoon.

But her request was quickly shot down.

"With respect, I decline to do so," he wrote.

In his reply to Pelosi, Jefferson listed his contributions to the committee and said none of the matters "reported to be under scrutiny involve issues under jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee."

He also suggested that the request was discriminatory because "no other member currently under federal investigation has been asked to step down from a substantive, legislative committee assignment."

So far this year, two other House members have relinquished committee posts while they were under investigation.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who has been entangled in the Jack Abramoff investigation, temporarily stepped aside as chairman of the House Administration Committee in January under pressure from Hastert and other GOP leaders.

Also, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-West Virginia, temporarily stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee in April, pending resolution of an investigation into his personal finances.

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