Thursday, May 25, 2006

House Leaders Demand Return of Seized Files

The New York Times
House Leaders Demand Return of Seized Files

WASHINGTON, May 24 — The constitutional clash pitting Congress against the executive branch escalated Wednesday as the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House demanded the immediate return of materials seized by federal agents when they searched the office of a House member who is under investigation in a corruption case.

The demand, by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, underscored the degree of the anger generated among members of both parties on Capitol Hill by the search on Saturday night at the office of Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana, who has been accused of accepting bribes.

"The Justice Department was wrong to seize records from Congressman Jefferson's office in violation of the constitutional principle of separation of powers, the speech or debate clause of the Constitution, and the practice of the last 219 years," Mr. Hastert and Ms. Pelosi said in a rare joint statement.

Mr. Jefferson made a similar demand in federal court. He called for federal agents to be prohibited from reviewing seized files and computer records.

Justice Department officials, who have said the search was proper and necessary, did not appear ready to return materials taken from the lawmaker's official House suite, setting the stage for a court battle to resolve competing claims of constitutional protection and criminal inquiry.

In a statement, the agency said it was trying to resolve the dispute in a way "that meets law enforcement's needs and also allays any institutional concerns that Congress may have."

Privately, Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials expressed dismay at the tone of statements by Mr. Hastert and Ms. Pelosi.

The officials said there was virtually no possibility that any material taken legally during the search would be returned since it was now in the custody of the F.B.I. as evidence in an active criminal case.

Mr. Jefferson's case, which holds potential for Republicans to score partisan points, seemed an unlikely mechanism for bringing the two parties together in an election year.

But it appears to have done just that, leading Democrats and Republicans to find common ground in defense of institutional prerogatives.

The tense conflict is also developing into a potential new problem for President Bush.

The White House has reached out to Republicans on Capitol Hill to allay concerns about the president's low poll numbers and to try to heal deep rifts within the party over a variety of issues, including immigration.

The constitutional confrontation is doing nothing to help with that effort.

One lawmaker whose stance will be important to the fate of the immigration legislation, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday set a hearing for next Tuesday on the implications of the search.

Mr. Sensenbrenner called the subject of the hearing "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

Besides the immediate return of the material, the Congressional leaders also said the Justice Department must halt review of the documents, make certain that those who have reviewed them do not disclose their contents and make a formal request in court to void the original search warrant.

Once the documents are returned, the leaders said, Mr. Jefferson "can and should fully cooperate with the Justice Department's efforts, consistent with his constitutional rights."

Mr. Hastert also said the F.B.I. agents involved in the search should be taken off the case.

The unanimity of Mr. Hastert and Ms. Pelosi, two staunch political foes, was a vivid display of how seriously House members are taking the search.

The two leaders have had a strained relationship made worse this year by an intense battle for control of Congress and by Democratic attacks on the way the Republican majority has led the House, which by extension are attacks on Mr. Hastert.

Their offices tried earlier this week to fashion a joint statement objecting to the search but were unable to come to agreement.

While Ms. Pelosi is objecting to the search, she is taking aim at Mr. Jefferson and on Wednesday urged him to abandon his seat on the Ways and Means Committee as part of the effort by Democrats, who have made Republican corruption a main campaign theme, to show that they have no tolerance for it in their own ranks.

But Mr. Jefferson quickly refused. The F.B.I., in obtaining the search warrant, said they had taped Mr. Jefferson accepting $100,000 to use his influence to ease business deals in Africa. Agents said most of the money was later recovered from his freezer.

The Justice Department said it had subpoenaed material last August but the response was delayed in negotiations with Mr. Jefferson and the House counsel, prompting the search.

David Johnston contributed reporting for this article.