WASHINGTON -- A federal judge held yesterday that an FBI search of the Capitol Hill office of Representative William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, had been conducted lawfully. The judge ruled that members of Congress who become the targets of criminal investigations generally deserve no more protection under the law than do ordinary citizens.
The ruling, by US District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, amounted to a blow both to Jefferson, who is the focus of a bribery inquiry, and to the House leadership. A bipartisan group of House members had supported his appeal.
The issue was the scope of the ``speech-or-debate" clause of the Constitution.
That clause protects members of Congress from being questioned or prosecuted for their legislative activities.
Jefferson and the House leaders had argued that the search was unconstitutional because FBI agents had combed through ``protected" material during their 18-hour search for evidence on May 20 and 21. They asserted that Jefferson should have been given the opportunity to review files.
Hogan said that right did not exist.
The possibility that materials may have been ``incidentally captured" by FBI investigators did not make the entire search illegal, Hogan said.
He added that any materials covered by the ``speech or debate" privilege could not be used against Jefferson in court if he is charged with a crime.
Hogan ordered that two boxes of papers and copies of hard drives seized during the raid be returned to the Justice Department so that prosecutors could continue their investigation of Jefferson.
The congressman's lawyers are believed to be seeking an order blocking the release pending an appeal.
Jefferson is being investigated to determine whether he accepted bribes and used his position to influence business deals in Africa in which he or family members had an interest. A former staff member has pleaded guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe Jefferson and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
A search of Jefferson's Washington home last year turned up $90,000 in bills in his freezer. That money was part of an FBI sting involving an informant.