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Lawmakers Concerned About FBI Search of Congressman's Office


An unprecedented search carried out by the FBI in the office of a member of Congress continues to stir controversy. Majority Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are outraged by the incident, which involves a bribery-related federal investigation into the activities of a House Democrat.

FBI agents conducted an intensive search last Saturday and Sunday of the Capitol Hill office of Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson.

They were executing a search warrant coinciding with the unsealing of court documents alleging Jefferson accepted bribes in the process of brokering business deals for companies and governments in West Africa.

During the investigation the lawmaker was videotaped taking a briefcase containing $100,000 out of a parked car.

Authorities say they later recovered $90,000 of that money stored in a freezer in his home, money federal officials say matched cash he had received from an FBI informer.

While attention is focused on Congressman Jefferson, who has not yet been formally charged with any crime, controversy is swirling over the methods used by the FBI in searching his office.

House Majority Leader John Boehner didn't mince words when he told reporters in an off-camera briefing he has serious concerns about the search and, in his words, whether people at the Justice Department have looked at the Constitution lately.

Earlier, House Speaker Dennis Hastert issued a statement saying authorities had crossed a line separating Congress from the executive branch by searching a congressional office while investigating a lawmaker, saying he sees constitutional problems.

Congressman Boehner says it would be up to Speaker Hastert to take the lead to protect the interests of the legislative branch of government, predicting that the matter might eventually go to the Supreme Court.

Congressman Jefferson has refused to comment on details of his case, and used a news conference Monday to repeat his contention that he has done nothing wrong, and blasted federal authorities.

"I think it [the search of his office] represents an outrageous intrusion into the separation of powers between the executive branch and the congressional branch, and no one has seen this in the entire life of the Congress."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has referred to what he calls unusual circumstances in approving the search of Jefferson's office.

He expanded on this Tuesday, saying authorities were unable to get the evidence they needed through the normal subpoena process.

"We worked very hard over a period of time to get the information, the evidence that we felt was important to a criminal investigation," said Mr. Gonzalez. "And at the end of the day, the decision was made that this was absolutely essential to move forward with that investigation."

Gonzalez says his office is taking steps to allay lawmaker's concerns over the basis for the search of the congressional office.

However, those concerns cross party lines. House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi said while members of Congress must obey the law and cooperate fully with any criminal investigation, Justice Department investigations must be conducted in accordance with Constitutional protections and historical precedent so that the government's system of checks and balances is not undermined.

House Democratic leaders have not issued any call for Congressman Jefferson to resign his House seat.

Jefferson and Republican Congressman Bob Ney, are also the subject of an investigation by the House of Representatives ethics committee.

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