Friday, May 26, 2006

Bush orders Jefferson records sealed

Bush orders Jefferson records sealed
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Thursday ordered records seized from Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's office to be sealed for 45 days to allow time to work out a dispute over the materials between the Justice Department and the House of Representatives.

"Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries," Bush said in taking the unusual step of intervening in a criminal investigation.

"Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out."

Bipartisan leaders of the House are outraged that the FBI seized a computer hard drive and two boxes of papers from Jefferson's office.

They contend the search violated the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The Justice Department considers the FBI search an important part of a probe into alleged public corruption.

Two former associates have pleaded guilty to bribery charges, and the FBI disclosed on Sunday it has videotaped Jefferson accepting bribe money and has found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.

Republican House leaders were relieved by Bush's move.

"It gives everybody a chance to step back," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. "I appreciate that... We will continue to work on it and I think we can come to a valid conclusion."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the order provides more time "to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress."

In a statement, Bush said he was directing the Justice Department to seal all the materials recovered from Jefferson's Capitol Hill office last weekend for the next 45 days.

The materials are to be given to the U.S. Solicitor General, who heads a separate office within the Justice Department and is not involved in the investigation into the case involving Jefferson.

"This period will provide both parties more time to resolve the issues in a way that ensures that materials relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation are made available to prosecutors in a manner that respects the interests of a co-equal branch of government," Bush said.

He urged the Justice Department and the House leadership to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.


In a joint statement, Hastert and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said they were directing the top House lawyer to begin negotiations with the Justice Department "regarding the protocols and procedures to be followed in connection with evidence of criminal conduct that might exist in the offices of Members."

Hastert and Pelosi demanded on Wednesday that the Justice Department give back material "unconstitutionally seized" in the raid.

The investigation of Jefferson has been publicly known since last August, when the FBI raided his homes in Washington and New Orleans.

In his statement, Bush said investigating and prosecuting crime is a crucial executive responsibility he takes seriously.

"Those who violate the law -- including a member of Congress -- should and will be held to account. This investigation will go forward, and justice will be served," Bush said.

(Additional reporting by Vicki Allen, Deborah Charles, Caren Bohan and Patricia Wilson)