Skip to main content

Bush stepped in to quell dispute over documents
President Bush has ordered that documents be sealed that the FBI took from a lawmaker's office.


Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
William Jefferson

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a rare intervention into a criminal investigation, President Bush decided to seal documents that the FBI had seized from the office of U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a White House official said Friday.

Jefferson, D-Louisiana, is under investigation in a bribery scandal. The FBI took the documents during a search last weekend of the congressman's legislative office, sparking outrage among Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

The White House official said that Bush "decided more time was needed to help both parties work through a difficult and really unprecedented matter."

The official said Congress and the FBI learned of Bush's decision Thursday morning.

The confiscated papers are in the custody of Solicitor General Paul Clement for 45 days while officials on both sides work out a solution to the dispute.

The White House official insisted that Bush "wants the investigation to go forward. But at the same time, he recognizes the deeply held view of a co-equal branch of government."

The FBI search caused bipartisan unease on Capitol Hill about the possible breach of separation of powers between Congress and the executive branch.

House Minority Leader Nancy 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" from Jefferson's office.

The 59-year-old lawmaker has not been charged with a crime and has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. He has vowed to run for re-election this year. (Watch how the FBI constructed its case -- 1:28)

A search of the congressman's home in August uncovered $90,000 cash in his freezer, according to an affidavit. (Full story)

Last week, the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into the bribery allegations.

Kentucky businessman Vernon Jackson pleaded guilty this month 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.

Democrats, GOP team up

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

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

They said 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.

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

They also contended 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.

Justice Department defends actions

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

"We believe our actions were lawful and necessary under these very unique circumstances," Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty 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 subpoenaed materials from his office.

A call to step down from panel

Though she backed him on the search issue, Pelosi sent a letter Wednesday to Jefferson, urging him to resign his post on the House Ways and Means Committee. But Jefferson quickly shot down her request.

In his reply, Jefferson listed his contributions to the panel 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."

CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines