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Raid Controversy Has Roots in US Constitution


A controversy over federal agents raiding the office of a congressman has its roots in the formation of the U.S. Constitution more than 200 years ago.

The controversy involves Congressman William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana.

Jefferson is the subject of a federal bribery investigation that involves the promotion of business interests in West Africa. He denies any wrongdoing.

What has upset members of Congress from both parties is an FBI raid on Congressman Jefferson's Washington office on May 20.

Republican James Sensenbrenner chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He says the FBI raid on a congressman's office violates a central tenet of the U.S. Constitution known as the separation of powers.

"The separation of powers and the checks and balances were put into our Constitution by the framers to make sure that no person or no branch of government got too powerful," said Mr. Sensenbrenner.

In the early days of the American Republic, the revolutionaries who won independence from Britain were determined not to replace a powerful English monarch with an equally potent American president.

So the founders devised a system of separate powers whereby the Congress made the laws, the executive branch, led by the president, enforced the laws, and the judicial branch, led by the Supreme Court, interpreted the laws to make sure they conformed with powers set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

Lawmakers upset with the FBI raid on Congressman Jefferson's office are concerned with what they view as an attempt by the executive branch, in the form of the Justice Department, to intimidate a member of the legislative branch.

Charles Tiefer is a law professor at the University of Baltimore in Maryland. He testified at a recent hearing called by members of Congress angry about the search of Congressman Jefferson's office.

"Now this raid had all the elements of unconstitutional executive intimidation," he said.

Another witness, George Washington University law Professor Jonathan Turley, said the office search represented a break in tradition that goes back 219 years to the formation of the Constitution in 1787.

"But there has been a tradition of mutual respect and mutual restraint between the branches. What occurred on that Saturday night shattered that tradition," he noted.

But not everyone sees the Jefferson raid as a violation of the Constitution.

The Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, spoke on Fox television.

"If there are accusations of bribery, of having lost the trust, abused the trust of the American people, criminal activity, no House member, no senator, nobody in government should be above the law of the land, period," said Mr. Frist.

Some members of Congress have urged President Bush to order the Justice Department to return the documents seized from Congressman Jefferson's office.

The Washington Post reported that some high level Justice Department officials signaled they might resign if the White House forced the return of documents.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says his department has the right to investigate allegations of corruption in Congress and is respectful of the separation of powers.

"Personally, in the department collectively, we have a great deal of respect for the Congress as a co-equal branch of government, as a separate and independent branch of government," said Mr. Gonzales.

Congressman Sensenbrenner says he intends to call Attorney General Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller to testify about the Jefferson case before his committee.

In the meantime, President Bush has ordered the materials seized in the raid sealed for 45 days in hopes that the Justice Department and House leaders can work out their differences over the case.