House Leaders Demand FBI Return Documents
LAURIE KELLMAN / AP | May 25 2006
WASHINGTON - Some lawmakers are warning of a voter backlash against members of Congress "trying to protect their own" if party leaders keep escalating a constitutional dispute over the FBI's raid of a representative's office.
Yet not long after House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded on Wednesday the bureau return documents it took, White House aides were in talks with Hastert's staff about the possible transfer of the material, perhaps to the House ethics committee, according to several Republican officials.
The goals of any transfer, they said, would be to deny the documents both to prosecutors and to Rep. Willliam Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat ensnared in a bribery investigation, until the legal issues surrounding the weekend search of his office are resolved. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential nature of the discussions.
The confrontational approach by Hastert, R-Ill., and Pelosi, D-Calif., did not sit well with some colleagues.
"Criticizing the executive and judicial branches of our government for fully investigating a member of Congress suspected of criminal wrongdoing sends the wrong message and reflects poorly upon all of Congress," Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., said in a statement. "They should not expect their congressional offices to be treated as a safe haven."
A GOP colleague, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, said the public "will come to one conclusion: that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations."
While some lawmakers contended the executive branch overstepped its authority, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has declined to condemn the search.
"I'm not going to beat up on the FBI," said Reid, a frequent critic of the White House's use of executive power.
Their voices were in the minority on Capitol Hill in the wake of the 15-hour search during which agents collected evidence against Jefferson, an eight-term Democrat.
Historians said it was the first such search of a congressman's quarters in the more than two centuries since the first Congress convened.
Assistant Attorney General Paul McNulty said the raid was lawful and necessary. Justice Department officials have said Jefferson had refused to cooperate with the investigation.
In their rare joint statement, Hastert and Pelosi demanded that the FBI return the documents and that Jefferson then would have to cooperate with the investigation.
As evidence of Pelosi's lack of support for her fellow Democrat, she said he should step down from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Jefferson filed a motion Wednesday asking the judge who signed the search warrant to force the FBI to return the seized items.
The congressman has refused to step down from the tax-writing committee and has acknowledged no wrongdoing.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, announced a hearing next week, "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
But Vitter released a letter to his own GOP Senate leaders asking them to stop saying that the FBI raid violated the Constitution.
"For congressional leaders to make these self-serving arguments in the midst of serious scandals in Congress only further erodes the faith and confidence of the American people," Vitter wrote.
Meantime, the Justice Department twice denied ABC News reports that Hastert was under FBI investigation to determine his role in a public corruption probe centered around convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Hastert said he has not received any notice from the department that he was being investigated.
Late Wednesday, ABC said the department's response was intended to deny that Hastert was a formal "target" or "subject" of the investigation. But ABC said federal officials confirmed that various members of Congress "including Hastert, are under investigation."
The Justice Department counted with a new denial in response to the ABC late-evening update.
"With regard to reports suggesting that the Speaker of the House is under investigation or 'in the mix,' as stated by ABC News, I reconfirm, as stated by the Department earlier this evening, that these reports are untrue," Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty said in a statement issued shortly after midnight Thursday.
The Associated Press reported last November that Hastert for two years did not 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.
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