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Supreme Court rejects appeal in seizure of lawmaker's papers

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Justice Department spokesman say prosecution of Jefferson will continue
  • FBI raided Rep. Jefferson's office in 2006 without warning congressional leaders
  • Lower court allowed Jefferson to review papers for privileged documents
  • Supreme Court rejected FBI's appeal, allowing lower court decision to stand
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From Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court decision that allowed a congressman to review and remove documents seized during a controversial FBI raid of his office.

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The Supreme Court allowed a lower court's decision to stand in the case of Rep. William Jefferson.

Rep. William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, said he was the victim of an overly aggressive raid of his Capitol Hill offices in May 2006. He was indicted 13 months later on public corruption charges.

The investigators' raid of Jefferson's office sparked a furor among congressional leaders, including Republicans, who argued the search violated the Constitution's separation of powers and legislative privilege.

The FBI did not warn leaders about the raid before they searched Jefferson's office.

The high court without comment let a lower court ruling stand that allows Jefferson -- with court oversight -- to review the seized documents and take out those that are privileged.

His federal trial was scheduled to start last month, but has been delayed perhaps until next year, pending the appeal on whether his lawmaker status protects him from prosecution.

Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, said they were pleased that the justices let the lower court decision stand.

"From the very moment that we learned of the FBI's raid on a Congressional office -- the first in our nation's history -- we were convinced that the Department of Justice was out of bounds," Trout said in a statement. "Now, almost two years later, we are gratified that our initial judgment about this unprecedented raid has finally been confirmed by the Supreme Court."

The government had urged the high court to decide the issue, but Attorney General Michael Mukasey suggested last month in congressional testimony that a negotiated agreement between lawmakers and his department would be better than an absolute "bright-line ruling that one of us can't live with or would find it awkward to live with."

When the case was argued last year, the government warned the Supreme Court that if Jefferson prevailed, ongoing and future public corruption probes would be seriously hamstrung. It said those investigations "serve a vital role in protecting the integrity of our democratic government."

In a brief statement Monday, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said, "We are disappointed the Supreme Court has decided not to review this matter. The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute the case."

At issue was whether the Constitution's "speech or debate clause" bars the executive branch from executing a search warrant for nonlegislative materials in the office of a member of Congress.

A federal appeals court found federal agents had improper "incidental exposure" to protected legislative materials on paper, while searching for "unprivileged evidence of criminal activity."

Jefferson said he should have been afforded a chance "to segregate privileged legislative materials and shield them from review" before the search warrant was executed.

The raid began late at night on a weekend, and lasted 18 hours. Officials have not detailed exactly what evidence was seized.

There was bipartisan criticism of the search of Jefferson's legislative offices. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said the FBI "took the wrong path."

But then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the move.

"We worked very hard over a period of time to get the information, the evidence we felt was important for a criminal investigation," he said in a press conference. "At the end of the day, the decision was made that this was absolutely essential to move forward."

Federal prosecutors allege that Jefferson took more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more, using a network of family companies to conceal the money. Jefferson denies the charges.

Prosecutors have other evidence in its case against the congressman besides the documents, including finding $90,000 in a freezer when his homes in Washington and New Orleans were raided in August 2005.

Officials say the money was part of a payment in marked bills from an FBI informant, in a transaction that was allegedly captured on videotape.

A grand jury returned a 16-count indictment against Jefferson on June 4, 2007, that included charges of racketeering, solicitation and conspiracy to solicit bribes, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

Jefferson denies the criminal allegations, and was re-elected in 2006 to a ninth term.

Democratic leaders have since stripped him of all committee assignments.

"I am absolutely innocent of the charges that have been levied against me, and I'm going to fight my heart out to clear my name," he told reporters after his indictment.

The case is U.S. v. Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2113 (07-816). E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Kevin Bohn and Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

All About William JeffersonU.S. Supreme CourtFederal Bureau of Investigation

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