August 3rd, 2007
02:01 PM ET
12 years ago

Appeals court: FBI search of Jefferson office violated Constitution

Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana

WASHINGTON (CNN) - A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an FBI search last year of the congressional office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., violated the Constitution, because neither he nor his lawyer could protect materials they deemed privileged from being taken by the government.

Federal prosecutors allege that Jefferson took more than $500,000 in bribes and sought millions more, using a network of family companies to conceal the money. Jefferson denies the charges.

The court ruled that the search violated the "Speech and Debate" clause of the U.S. Constitution, which is meant to protect legislative business from any action by the executive branch, such as the Justice Department.

"We hold that a search that allows agents of the executive to review privileged materials without the (congressional) member's consent violates the clause," the ruling says.

However, the court said that only the seizing of paperwork violated the clause; "the copying of computer hard drives and other electronic media is constitutionally permissible."

Before the search, the government set up a special "filter" mechanism in which any materials that the congressman claimed fell under his privilege as a congressman would be kept away from the agents investigating him. But the court ruled that that mechanism was insufficient.

"We conclude that the congressman is entitled ... to the return of all materials (including copies) that are privileged legislative materials under the speech or debate clause," the court said in its ruling. There have been disagreements between Jefferson's lawyers and the Justice Department over how much of the material taken in the search was privileged.

The court is to determine which materials are returned to Jefferson.

In the raid of Jefferson's office in the House Rayburn Building, FBI agents seized a wide variety of paperwork as well as computer hard drives.

Jefferson's attorney, Robert Trout, issued a statement welcoming the decision, saying it "underscores the fact that the Department of Justice is required to follow the law, and that it is bound to abide by the Constitution.

Those principles will continue to be important as we raise additional legal challenges to the overreaching by the government in this case.

"We are confident that as this case moves forward, and when all of the facts are known, we will prevail again and clear Congressman Jefferson's name."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse issued a statement saying the department "is pleased that the D.C. Circuit opinion does not find that the search of a congressional office is unconstitutional."

But he added, "We are disappointed with the ruling that requires that a member of Congress be provided advance notice and the right to review materials before the execution of a search warrant."

Roehrkasse said "the indictment and prosecution of Congressman Jefferson will not be negatively impacted by this decision."

The Justice Department has other evidence in its case against the congressman, including finding $90,000 in his freezer.

A grand jury returned a 16-count indictment against Jefferson on June 4, 2007, that included charges of racketeering, solicitation and conspiracy to solicit bribes, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

Jefferson's homes in Washington and New Orleans were raided in August 2005. The following May, investigators raided his Capitol Hill office, sparking a furor among congressional leaders who argued the search violated the Constitution's separation of powers.

In court papers defending the 2006 search, investigators disclosed that they had found $90,000 in cash in the freezer of Jefferson's Washington home, part of a $100,000 payment delivered by an informant in the bribery probe,
according to federal agents.

Jefferson received the cash in one of 11 bribery schemes prosecutors said they had outlined during the two-year investigation.

Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., where the charges were brought, has said that Jefferson solicited a bribe from an informant in December 2004 "while in a congressional dining room in Washington, D.C."

He said Jefferson asked for a 5 to 7 percent share of a company the cooperating witness controlled, which would go to a relative of the congressman.

In return, Rosenberg said, Jefferson offered to use his office to promote the company's joint venture in Nigeria, and met with someone Rosenberg described only as "a high-ranking executive branch official from Nigeria" in July 2005.

The money in his freezer was supposed to go to the Nigerian official, and Jefferson had told the cooperating witness that he had delivered "the African art" to that official days before his home was raided, according to the federal attorney.

According to Friday's ruling, jury selection in the case is to start in January 2008.

–CNN Senior Producer Kevin Bohn

Filed under: William Jefferson
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. RightyTighty

    The demorats finest in the fight against the culture of corruption..

    August 3, 2007 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  2. RET Navy, KY

    Nice to know He gets a pass. But were did the 90,000 come from, Mr. Jefferson. We little poeple would have to account for that kind of money. So SORRY your a congressman they DO NOT have to ACCOUNT for their actions, or where the money comes from.

    August 3, 2007 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  3. Independent Voter, TN

    Here we go with OJ/Al Gore III justice again. Common sense tells you they did it, but they get off on a technicality or on their celebrity.

    Put him away with Duke Cunningham.

    August 3, 2007 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Regardless of whether they search was Constitutional, I want to know why he had 90,000 hidden in his freezer. One would assume he didnt report that to the IRS...

    Still, we do need to uphold Constitutional standards. However thats the problem with the whole system. Lawmakers write law, and then exploit the loopholes for their own benefits..

    August 3, 2007 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  5. David, Col, Oh

    People have perpetrated injustices for centuries in this country... now a Black man is using the same Jim Crow system to get off.

    What.. you don't think it's fair independent voter? I can tell when a person is leaning a certain way in their comments...take the sheet off!!!

    August 3, 2007 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  6. Brandon, Sacramento, CA

    There is no real difference constitutionally between electronic and paper versions of documents. The court clearly is uneducated about the modern world. Perhaps if they didn't have their clerks do all the work for them they'd know a thing or two about reality.

    August 3, 2007 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  7. tony ,tampa

    Tancredo you are real sick.

    August 3, 2007 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  8. Independent Voter, TN

    So, David, I take it from your "I know all about what makes you tick from the three sentences you wrote" analysis of my posting that you are a trained profiler or some other kind of clairvoyant. I'm also guessing your gut is telling you that the money in Mr. Jefferson's freezer was just "cold hard cash" for a rainy day?

    I just see it diffrently and I'm guessing most objective people see it the way I do. He's entitled to his day in court... I just think that our justice system often does not get it right due to technicalities and privilege.

    Dule Cunningham deserved to go to jail and "if" things are as they appear, so should Mr. Jefferson.

    How say you?

    August 3, 2007 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  9. Kim, Midland, MI

    Well, this is what you get from strict constructionist judges!

    Only OLD people still think that there is a difference between printed paper and electronic files. If you think there is a difference – then you are too OLD to be making these decisions.

    By the way, I'm 50.

    August 3, 2007 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  10. Jasper Kingsley NH

    He can get on his knees and thank God he is not a Republican. As a Republican he would already in jail.

    August 3, 2007 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  11. Myron, Honolulu, HI

    What kind of crazy crap is that? However, the court said that only the seizing of paperwork violated the clause; “the copying of computer hard drives and other electronic media is constitutionally permissible.” If they have the hard drive with the documents, what good does it do to protect the print out, if you don’t also protect the information files themselves? How crooked can our courts get? People that use computers are not complete fools. Your Honor? Where is the Honor in that?

    August 3, 2007 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  12. L.M., Ardmore, Oklahoma

    When the next opening comes for the Supreme Court of the United States, these judges will do just fine, thank you. I don't care what you think you need to know, what you suspect or what you want..not in my home, not in your office, not in this country.

    August 3, 2007 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  13. IV, Dallas

    To commentor "RightTighty":

    So, how about that FBI raid on Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)'s house?

    August 3, 2007 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  14. Stephen Cluff, Denver Colorado

    It is very sad... I see a mental picture of Bush standing over a paper shredder with the constitution in his hand. I can’t wait until Bush is out of office. It will feel like it did when the Berlin Wall came down.

    August 3, 2007 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  15. Adam Young, Atlanta, GA

    Why is 'paper' included in the clause? Does the constitutional clause specifically state paper as privileged? The content of any investigation should not be media specific. It's the words, not the media.

    August 3, 2007 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  16. Anonymous, Calif

    ALL crooks, fraud, and con-artists need to be thrown-out of office.

    That would include Bush/Cheney.

    August 3, 2007 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  17. Tom Dedham, Mass

    Makes sense, Sandy Berger pretty much got away with merely stealing papers.

    August 3, 2007 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  18. jim surprise ,az

    It is unbelievable what we allow our politicians to get away with. If it were a normal working class individual he be imprisoned. I hope to God I see the people of this country take back the power. I am totally disgusted.

    We definately need a third party. This corrupt 2 party system just doesnt work anymore.

    August 3, 2007 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  19. just sayin', fort lauderdale, fl

    While Jefferson is apparently sleazy, I find it more interesting that the Executive branch feels free to unilaterally decide what of its information is privileged and not to be given to Congress, but doesn't feel that Congress should have the right to decide what of its information is privileged. I assume that is because the Executive info is covering up things that are just as bad or worse...

    August 3, 2007 06:30 pm at 6:30 pm |
  20. Rolando DePuy, El Paso, Texas

    Another bought judge.. Where is America going?

    August 4, 2007 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  21. Ali A. Akbar, Fort Worth, Texas

    He's guilty. Go to PRISON WILLIAM!

    August 6, 2007 01:52 am at 1:52 am |