May 18th, 2009
11:05 AM ET
13 years ago

High court declines to step into Jefferson case

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="The U.S. Supreme Court is refusing to hear former congressman William Jefferson's appeal."]WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Supreme Court refused Monday to settle an ongoing dispute over the prosecution of former congressman William Jefferson on corruption charges.

The justices' denial of the onetime lawmaker's appeal means his criminal corruption trial is likely to proceed to trial later this month.

The Louisiana Democrat claims he was the victim of an overly aggressive FBI raid of his Capitol Hill offices in May 2006. He was indicted 13 months later on public corruption charges.

At issue in the appeal was whether he had constitutional protection as a lawmaker - so that evidence obtained in that search should not have been presented to the grand jury to obtain the indictment.

The Constitution's "speech or debate clause" bars the executive branch from executing a search warrant for non-legislative materials in the office of a member of Congress. A federal appeals court partially backed Jefferson, finding that federal agents had improper "incidental exposure" to protected legislative materials on paper while searching for "unprivileged evidence of criminal activity." But it upheld other parts of the search.

Jefferson - who lost re-election to his seat last fall - said he should have been afforded a chance "to segregate privileged legislative materials and shield them from review" before the search warrant was executed.

The 62-year-old Harvard Law School graduate faces criminal counts of racketeering, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice. His private homes in Washington and New Orleans were raided in 2005, and FBI agents say they found $90,000 in cash in one of his freezers. Officials say the money was part of a payment in marked bills from an FBI informant, in a transaction that was allegedly captured on video.

Afterward, prosecutors subpoenaed more documents from Jefferson, but they say they received no cooperation from him or his lawyers. A federal judge, after reviewing an affidavit outlining the evidence against Jefferson, then approved a search of the congressman's offices in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The raid began late at night on a weekend and lasted 18 hours. Officials have not detailed exactly what evidence was seized.

At the time, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the move. "We worked very hard over a period of time to get the information, the evidence we felt was important for a criminal investigation," he said in a news conference. "At the end of the day, the decision was made that this was essential to move forward."

Jefferson denies the criminal allegations.

He was re-elected to a ninth term in 2006, while the controversy swirled around him. Democratic leaders later stripped him of all committee assignments.

"I am absolutely innocent of the charges that have been levied against me, and I'm going to fight my heart out to clear my name," he told reporters after his indictment.

There was bipartisan criticism of the search of Jefferson's legislative offices. Then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said the FBI "took the wrong path."

The government warned the Supreme Court in its appeal that if Jefferson prevailed, ongoing and future public corruption probes would be seriously hamstrung. It said those investigations "serve a vital role in protecting the integrity of our democratic government."

The Supreme Court in March 2008 refused to intervene in an appeal from the Justice Department, after a federal judge allowed Jefferson - with court oversight - to review the seized documents and take out those that were privileged.

The current appeal is Jefferson v. U.S. (08-1059).

Filed under: Supreme Court • William Jefferson
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Like all Louisiana polticians, this guy is a crook. That goes for Jindal as well. I thought Chicago politics was dirty. Boy was I wrong. I mean, who actually hides 90k in the freezer?

    May 18, 2009 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
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