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Jefferson asks to keep records sealed

Judge ruled that raid of congressman's office was constitutional
FBI agents raided Rep. William Jefferson's congressional office while investigating corruption charges.


William Jefferson
Justice Department
Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Louisiana congressman implicated in a federal bribery probe filed papers Tuesday to keep records seized from his Capitol Hill office under seal while he appeals a federal judge's order allowing investigators to review them.

Federal agents in May searched the office of Rep. William Jefferson in May. The action spurred protests from both parties in the House of Representatives. On Monday, Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled that the Constitution's "speech and debate" clause, which gives members of Congress immunity while conducting their official duties, does not shield them from execution of valid search warrants.

Lawyers for Jefferson, a Democrat whose district includes much of the New Orleans area, filed notice Tuesday that he would appeal that decision. They argued that releasing the documents and computers seized in the search while he pursues an appeal would inflict "irreparable injury" on the congressman. (Read the lawyers justification for the stay -- PDF)

Justice Department officials told CNN that they would not touch the documents until Jefferson's request for a stay is resolved -- a development they said could happen by Wednesday.

Prosecutors are going ahead with their investigation, lawyers for Jefferson said, and the material taken from his office remains under seal at the solicitor general's office.

"The public will not suffer any harm in the interim, and the public will benefit from the full and fair consideration of this important issue," Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, wrote in seeking the stay.

In his Monday order, Hogan said Jefferson's argument that the search was unconstitutional "would have the effect of converting every congressional office into a taxpayer-subsidized sanctuary for crime." (Read Judge Hogan's orderexternal link -- PDF)

The 59-year-old, eight-term lawmaker is the subject of a criminal probe into allegations he accepted bribes in return for using his office to facilitate business ventures in Africa. In court documents, prosecutors said $90,000 in cash was found in the freezer of his Washington home when it was searched last summer.

A Kentucky businessman and a former Jefferson aide have pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with the probe and agreed to cooperate with investigators.

Jefferson has denied wrongdoing and vowed to continue his bid for re-election in November. But House Democrats voted to strip him of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee after he rejected requests from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to step down.

House leaders complained loudly about the raid on Jefferson's office, arguing it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government. Amid the uproar, President Bush ordered the solicitor general's office to take custody of the materials for 45 days while House lawyers and the Justice Department tried to resolve the impasse.

That 45-day "cooling-off" period expired Sunday, and Hogan ruled the Justice Department could immediately take possession of the seized records.

Meanwhile, congressional negotiators and Justice Department officials are close to reaching an agreement on procedures for future searches of lawmakers' offices by federal agents.

CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report.

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