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Justice Department rejects calls to return lawmaker's documents

Lawyers for Rep. Jefferson argue that search violated Constitution

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

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Lawyers for Rep. William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, asked a court to return documents seized from his office.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department told a federal court Tuesday that Rep. William Jefferson's demand for the return of documents seized from his office conflict with "the bedrock principle that the laws of this country allow no place or employment as a sanctuary for crime."

However, in what was termed "a procedural accommodation," the government said it would provide Jefferson with a copy of all materials seized from his office.

Jefferson is under investigation in a bribery scandal. The FBI took documents during a search of the congressman's legislative office on May 20, sparking bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill.

In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the government lawyers rejected Jefferson's claim filed last week that the speech or debate clause of the Constitution bars the government from executing a search warrant on a congressional office.

The Justice Department said if Jefferson's position were upheld it "would fundamentally subvert the well-established proposition that the clause does not confer a general immunity on members of Congress from the usual criminal procedures."

In a 33-page court filing, the government said it took into account "the sensitive issues at stake" and used special procedures to ensure that no material related to legislative acts gathered from the search inadvertently fell into the hands of the prosecution team investigating Jefferson's alleged criminal activity.

"The government does not seek to obtain -- and indeed has gone to great lengths to avoid obtaining -- any information from Rep. Jefferson that is actually covered by the speech or debate clause," the court paper said.

The FBI said it used a screened-off "filter team," which affords Jefferson an opportunity to examine the seized materials and claim a privilege on the documents before any of the papers come into the possession of the prosecutors in the case. The filter team will return to Jefferson all original documents that either the team or the court determine are "privileged."

The government told the court the procedures it has followed therefore do not violate the Constitution.

"Clearly they do not. For that reason and because Rep. Jefferson's claims under the Fourth Amendment (and federal rules of criminal procedure) are equally without merit, the motion for return of property should be denied," it said.

The government filing came hours after the House Judiciary Committee heard critics of the FBI raid declare the search a violation of the separation of powers. (Full story)

Last week, in a rare joint statement, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois,and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, demanded that the documents seized in FBI raid be returned.

However, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and FBI Director Robert Mueller indicated they would resign if forced to give the seized materials back, the two administration officials told CNN.

To avoid crisis, President Bush ordered the documents sealed and placed in the possession of the Justice Department's solicitor general for 45 days while the issues are sorted out by administration and congressional leaders.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, who approved the search warrant, may rule on Jefferson's demand for the return of the property.

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