Court rules FBI raid on lawmaker illegal
By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 4 2007 00:22 | Last updated: August 4 2007 00:22
The FBI illegally seized documents from the Capitol Hill office of a Louisiana lawmaker last year, a US court ruled on Friday, in a decision that could affect the ability of federal prosecutors to investigate political corruption.
The court of appeals for the District of Columbia said the Department of Justice must return to William Jefferson some privileged documents that were taken during the raid.
It ruled that the search of Mr Jefferson’s computer hard drives was not illegal, however, because it did not reveal “legislative material” to the executive branch of government.
Mr Jefferson, a Democratic congressman who is alleged to have kept $90,000 in cash in his home freezer, was indicted on corruption charges in June, months after the search of his Washington office caused a bipartisan furore over whether the raid was constitutional.
The Department of Justice said on Friday it was pleased that the court did not find the search of the office unconstitutional but was “disappointed” that the ruling required members of Congress to be given “advance notice and the right to review materials before the execution of a search warrant”.
The department said its prosecution of Mr Jefferson would not be hurt by the decision because of “procedures” it put in place before its search warrant was executed.
Mr Jefferson’s attorney, Robert Trout, hailed the ruling as a victory.
“This is a reminder that just because the Department of Justice says it’s so, doesn’t make it so. We are confident that as this case moves forward, and when all of the facts are known, we will prevail again and clear Congressman Jefferson’s name,” Mr Trout said in a statement.
But Melanie Sloan, a former prosecutor and ethics watchdog, said the decision was “devastating” to the investigation and prosecution of congressional corruption because it could have a “profound effect” on other cases, including the fed- eral investigation into Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.
Mr Stevens’ Alaska home was searched by the FBI and tax officials on Monday as part of a wide-ranging corruption probe.
“Sen Ted Stevens now has every incentive to store in his congressional office any document concerning the renovations of his house, secure in the knowledge that it will be beyond the reach of federal investigators,” she said.