WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's bribery investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) suffered a setback Friday when a federal appeals court ruled that Jefferson was entitled to review documents investigators seized during a raid of his Capitol Hill office and file objections.
The order from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upsets a ruling by a lower court judge that the search of Jefferson's office -- believed to be the first in congressional history -- was proper. It slows the Justice Department investigation of Jefferson at least temporarily, and heightens the drama in a tense constitutional showdown between Congress and prosecutors over the rights of lawmakers suspected of engaging in public corruption.
In a terse, four-paragraph order, a three-judge panel of the appeals court suggested the lower-court judge had erred by not giving Jefferson an opportunity to review the seized documents and to lodge objections based on his rights under the "speech or debate" clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause protects members of Congress from being prosecuted for their official "legislative acts."
The appeals court ordered that Jefferson be given copies of the records and computer files that the FBI seized during the May 20-21 raid. Jefferson will have two days from the date he receives the material to file objections. The lower court judge was then ordered to privately review the records and determine whether any should not be turned over to authorities.
U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan had ruled July 10 that procedures the Justice Department established for sorting through Jefferson's records were adequate. Investigators had established a special "filter team" composed of agents not on the case to determine whether the records were within the scope of the search warrant and whether any appeared to involve Jefferson's legislative work.
Hogan, who also signed the original warrant authorizing the search of the office, expressed concern that giving a congressman an opportunity to review records in advance could frustrate legitimate investigations into criminal wrongdoing, and give members of Congress special privileges that ordinary citizens do not enjoy.
The documents have been in legal limbo almost from the minute they were seized. President Bush ordered them impounded for 45 days while the legal battle worked through the courts. The Justice Department was prepared to begin examining the documents on Wednesday, but that review was blocked when the appeals court issued a temporary stay pending its decision.
The appeals court ruling did not directly address the legality of the search. Some legal observers said the order appeared to be an attempt to parse the documents to determine whether at least some should be turned over to investigators immediately while constitutional claims involving any disputed files are being decided.
Both sides in the case claimed at least partial victories in the ruling.
"We are pleased that in response to our motion for a stay, the Court of Appeals has prohibited the Department of Justice from reviewing the materials seized from the congressman's office pending further order of the court," Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, said in a statement. "We are continuing to study the order and the procedures that recognize the importance of the speech or debate clause."
Said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse: "We are pleased that the court acted expeditiously. It is clear they understand the importance of moving this matter forward."
But some viewed the ruling as a measure of vindication for the beleaguered Congressman. A bi-partisan group of House leaders had also challenged the raid, saying that it trampled lawmakers' constitutional rights.
"I think that the appellate court has recognized a big part of the strong legal argument made by the bipartisan House leadership and by the Congressman's counsel: The right way to sort out privileged and unprivileged documents in a congressional office is not by the FBI trucking them away but by a judge listening to and deciding the privilege question," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor and former House counsel.
Jefferson has been under investigation to determine whether he accepted bribes and used his position to aid companies in Africa in which he or family members had an interest. He was caught up in a sting last year in which some $90,000 in foil-wrapped $100 bills was found in the freezer of his Washington home, according to the FBI.