Frist: FBI search OK


WASHINGTON (AP) – In a break with his counterparts in the House, the Senate’s leader said Sunday the FBI was within its right to search the office of a congressman under investigation in a bribery case.

“No House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said.

Frist, R-Tenn., was responding to the search conducted May 20-21 in the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. FBI agents carted away computer and other records in their pursuit of evidence that Jefferson accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for helping set up business deals in Africa.

It was the first time that a warrant had been used to search a lawmaker’s office in the history of the Congress.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California responded with a rare joint statement, protesting that the FBI had not notified them and that the search violated the Constitution’s separation of power protections.

Frist said he examined the provision closely and talked the issue over with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He concluded that the FBI acted appropriately.

“I don’t think it abused separation of powers,” Frist said on “Fox News Sunday.

“I think there’s allegations of criminal activity, and the American people need to have the law enforced.”

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which plans a hearing Tuesday on the constitutionality of the search, said the FBI overstepped its authority. Rep. James Sensenbrenner compared the search of a congressman’s office to a Capitol Police raid of the Oval Office.

“This debate is not over whether Congressman Jefferson is guilty of a criminal offense,” Sensenbrenner said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He cannot use the constitutional immunity of Congress to shield himself from that or any evidence of that. But it is about the ability of the Congress to be able to do its job free of coercion from the executive branch.”

Hastert complained directly to President Bush and demanded that the FBI return the materials. Bush struck a compromise Thursday, ordering that the documents be sealed for 45 days until congressional leaders and the Justice Department agree on what to do with them – a move that Frist said he supported “to let things settle down.”

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said there needs to be “hard look” at whether the FBI violated the Constitution. But he said the FBI has raided judge’s chambers before, so there is precedent for crossing branches of government for searches.

He also said he wasn’t sure the “speech and debate” protections in Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution were violated, as some of have argued.

That section states that members of Congress “shall in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any speech or debate in either house, they shall not be questioned in any other place.”

“I’m not sure that you can stretch it to apply to this situation,” Durbin said. “In the next several weeks, we ought to take a hard look at it. I’m not going to rule it in or out at this moment.”

Before Bush’s compromise, the showdown last week led the House leaders to threaten budgetary retaliation against the Justice Department, a senior administration official told The Associated Press on Saturday. Justice officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, raised the prospect of resigning if the department were asked to return documents that FBI agents took from Jefferson’s office.

AP-ES-05-28-06 1357EDT