House panel to call attorney general, FBI chief

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner said Tuesday he will summon Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller before his House panel to testify about their decision to search a lawmaker’s office.

“I want to have Attorney General Gonzales and FBI Director Mueller up here to tell us how they reached the conclusion they did,” said Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and one of President Bush’s most loyal House allies.

Gonzales has said that the search of Rep. William Jefferson’s offices was legal and necessary because the Louisiana Democrat had not cooperated with investigators’ efforts to gain access to evidence in a bribery probe. An affidavit on which the search warrant was based said investigators had found $90,000 stashed in the freezer of Jefferson’s house.

“We would certainly consider a request for a hearing if one were to be made,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, “We also hope that Congress recognizes it would inappropriate for a federal official to discuss the specific details of an ongoing criminal investigation in a public hearing.”

Even as Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, announced his hard line on the administration, congressional and Justice Department lawyers were working behind the scenes to meet on guidelines for any future searches. Several investigations are in progress that involve members of Congress, including an influence-peddling probe centered on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Elsewhere in Congress, lawmakers who had once criticized the May 20 search of Rep. William Jefferson’s office were backing off. Still others of both parties defended the search, saying an affidavit outlined charges that the Louisiana Democrat may have accepted bribes in exchange for his support of business dealings in Africa.

“I am extremely disappointed that some in this body, including the speaker and the minority leader, feel that somehow our actions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny,” said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla. “Congress is hiding behind a shield that is not available to the average American.”

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., over the weekend backed off his statement of concern over the matter after meeting Friday with Gonzales. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said that there was precedent for one branch of government searching the quarters of another in a criminal investigation.

No one defended Jefferson, who has has denied wrongdoing.

The Justice Department filed court papers Tuesday opposing the congressman’s demand that property seized in the office raid be returned. Such a step would be “fundamentally inconsistent with the bedrock principle that ‘the laws of this country allow no place or employment as a sanctuary for crime,”‘ the papers said, quoting language from a Supreme Court case nearly a century old.

Jefferson’s interpretation would remove courts from their traditional role of ruling on privilege claims and would subvert the principle that members of Congress are not immune from ordinary criminal procedures, the department said in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

Back on Capitol Hill, Sensenbrenner signaled that he would not be joining those who had softened their criticism of the raid and in fact planned two more hearings on the subject. He also suggested he might introduce legislation codifying any guidelines for such searches.

One hearing, Sensenbrenner said, would include Gonzales and Mueller.

“They didn’t get it right this time,” Sensenbrenner said during the first session, titled “Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?”

Democrats supported the hearing and the prospect of a thorough, televised questioning of the Bush administration.

“We’ve never been told why the search had to be done in the middle of the night,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, John Conyers of Michigan. “We’ve never learned why the member in question was not permitted to have his attorneys present while his offices were searched for some 18 hours.”

The hearing comes more than a week after the FBI, without giving House leaders notice, conducted an overnight raid of Jefferson’s suite in the Rayburn House Office Building as part of a bribery investigation. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi issued a rare joint statement last week protesting the raid as a violation of constitutional separation of powers protections.

One witness at the hearing, former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., said Congress should play hardball in seeking answers to its questions by subpoenaing administration documents authorizing the raid.

“The American people should be deeply concerned that a decision to conduct a raid on Congress was made consciously and evidently at high levels inside the Justice Department and the FBI,” Walker told the panel.

“If the Rayburn raid was a precedent for coming attractions and intimidating tactics, the way Congress responds initially must be improved,” he said.

AP-ES-05-30-06 1643EDT


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