WASHINGTON – In rare, election-year harmony, House Republican and Democratic leaders jointly demanded on Wednesday that the FBI return documents taken in a Capitol Hill raid that has quickly grown into a constitutional turf fight beyond party politics.
“The Justice Department must immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
After that, they said, Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana must cooperate with the Justice Department’s bribery investigation against him.
The leaders also said the Justice Department should not look at the documents or give them to investigators in the Jefferson case.
The developments capped a day of escalating charges, demands and behind-the-scene talks between House leaders and the Justice Department that ended with no resolution, according to officials of both parties.
House officials were drafting a joint resolution frowning on the raid. And Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., announced a hearing next week titled, “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”
Hastert’s name has come up in a wide-ranging investigation into whether convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s fundraising influenced several members of Congress, but the Justice Department said Wednesday the speaker wasn’t being investigated.
The Associated Press reported last November that Hastert for two years didn’t disclose his use of Abramoff’s restaurant for a fundraiser just two weeks before he asked the Interior Department in a letter to reject a Louisiana Indian tribe’s application for a casino license.
At the time, Abramoff was representing another tribe that opposed the casino. Hastert, who collected a total of $100,000 from Abramoff’s and his tribal clients, blamed a paperwork oversight, filed the required disclosure and paid for the use of the restaurant.
“Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department,” Tasia Scolino, a spokeswoman for the department said Wednesday night.
Asked about the matter as he walked from his office to the House floor, Hastert said he knew of no such investigation, commenting later: “Somebody leaked it out.” Asked if he thought Gonzales should resign, the speaker shook his head and declined to answer.
“We’re not trying to protect an individual, we’re trying to protect the separation of powers,” Hastert said. “That was true during Watergate, it was true during Bill Clinton,” he added, referring former President Nixon’s ultimate resignation and President’s Clinton impeachment trial over an affair with an intern.
Constitutional confrontation aside, Pelosi said Jefferson should resign from the powerful Ways and Means committee. He refused.
At the same time, Jefferson filed a motion asking the federal judge in the case to order the FBI to return the material it seized from his office.
The Justice Department dug in, repeating that the raid was carried out only after Jefferson refused to comply with a subpoena and only then with a search warrant signed by a judge.
“The actions were lawful and necessary under these unique circumstances,” said Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
The constitutional fight was set in motion last Saturday night, when the FBI raided Jefferson’s legislative office in pursuit of evidence against him in an investigation of whether he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in a bribery deal.
Historians say the search was the first of its kind in Congress’ 219-year history. Reaction has crossed party lines and brought in all three branches of government.
Hastert, Pelosi and several other leaders of both parties in the Senate say the weekend raid violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.
“These constitutional principles were not designed by the founding fathers to place anyone above the law,” Hastert and Pelosi said. “Rather, they were designed to protect the Congress and the American people from abuses of power, and those principles deserve to be vigorously defended.”
Not all lawmakers agreed.
“These self-serving separation of power arguments” have no basis in law, said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in a letter to GOP leaders. He noted that search warrants had previously been served on members’ homes, including Jefferson’s.
“A distinction that would treat searches in their offices completely differently is superficial and baseless,” Vitter wrote. “The American people will come to one conclusion – that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations.”
No one was defending the Louisiana congressman other than Jefferson himself.
“In the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus, I am writing to request your immediate resignation from the Ways and Means Committee,” Democratic leader Pelosi wrote him.
“With respect, I decline to do so,” he wrote back, leaving it to the House to try to pressure him out of the seat or strip him of the post by majority vote.
“I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain, long-term political strategy,” he added.
Away from the Capitol, Jefferson filed a motion that mirrored parts of Pelosi and Hastert’s statement. In it, he asked U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Hogan to order the FBI to return all of the documents taken from his office during the 15-hour search. Hogan, appointed by the President Reagan, was the judge who last Thursday issued the warrant authorizing the search.
Hastert on Tuesday complained directly to Bush that the raid violated the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.
Justice Department officials said there was no similar outcry when FBI agents searched a federal judge’s chambers in a bribery investigation in the early 1990s. In that case, U.S. District Judge Robert Collins of Louisiana was convicted of bribery, after agents found marked bills in his office.
The Collins case is the only one in which a federal judge’s office has been searched, the department said.
Associated Press writers David Espo and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.