WASHINGTON -- In a rare bipartisan action, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and minority leader Nancy Pelosi demanded yesterday that the Justice Department immediately return documents that were seized when federal agents raided the office of Representative William Jefferson as part of a bribery probe.
Pointing out that ``no person is above the law, neither the one being investigated nor those conducting the investigation," Hastert, an Illinois Republican, and Pelosi, a California Democrat, asserted that the Justice Department must cease reviewing the documents and ensure that their contents are not divulged. Once the papers are returned, ``Congressman Jefferson can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department's efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights," the statement said.
The demands by Hastert and Pelosi further escalated a separation-of-powers conflict between Congress and the White House. The raid last weekend on the office of Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, was the first time in history that the FBI has executed a search warrant on the Capitol Hill office of a sitting lawmaker.
The Justice Department initially signaled an unwillingness to return the documents. But White House officials are concerned about the complaints of the congressional leaders and have pressed the Justice Department to find a way to placate Congress and defuse the controversy, according to a Justice official.
Many Republicans and Democrats contend that the unprecedented raid on a congressional office was unduly aggressive and may have breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government that are meant to shelter lawmakers from administrative intimidation. However, legal scholars are divided on this issue, and some said yesterday that the raid does not violate the letter of the Constitution or subsequent rulings by the Supreme Court.
The FBI is investigating allegations that Jefferson, who represents New Orleans, took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for using his congressional influence to promote high-tech business ventures in Africa. The eight-term House member has denied wrongdoing and told reporters this week that he intends to run for reelection in November. Jefferson also rejected a call by Pelosi to temporarily vacate his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, the chief tax-writing panel, pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a Wisconsin Republican, announced yesterday he would hold a hearing on the ``profoundly disturbing" questions that he said the Justice Department's actions have raised.
A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of negotiations, said after the Hastert-Pelosi joint statement was released that ``the department will not agree to any arrangement or demand that would harm or hurt an ongoing law enforcement investigation."
``We are in discussions with them on something that would preserve law enforcement interests while also allaying their institutional concerns," the official said. ``But our position is that we did it legally and we did it lawfully, and we're not going to back away from that."
Earlier in the day, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said the Justice Department resorted to a search of Jefferson's office only because ``other means" of obtaining the material had been unsuccessful. ``We believe our actions were lawful and necessary under these very unusual circumstances," McNulty said.
Jefferson challenged the weekend raid in a motion filed yesterday in federal court. The motion sought the return of the documents and ``immediate relief," including that the FBI and Justice Department stop reviewing seized items; the materials be sequestered in a locked, secure place; and the FBI raid team file a report with the court detailing which documents were reviewed and what was done to sequester the documents.