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When a dozen FBI agents flooded into the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) in the House Rayburn Office Building in May, history was made. Never had the executive branch executed a search warrant on a congressional office. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last week that those FBI agents violated the Constitution when they combed through Jefferson’s records, some of which were packaged in two boxes and carted away. While the search itself was constitutional, the court said, the FBI overstepped its bounds in reviewing and seizing privileged legislative materials. The ruling bars prosecutors from using the documents in its case against Jefferson, who pleaded not guilty in June to bribery, racketeering, and money-laundering charges. “We hold that the compelled disclosure of privileged material to the Executive during execution of the search warrant .�.�. violated the Speech or Debate Clause and that the Congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged under the Clause,” wrote Judge Judith Rogers in the majority opinion. In an e-mailed statement, Justice Department officials said the ruling will not affect their case against Jefferson, whose trial is scheduled to begin in January in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III will ultimately decide whether prosecutors may use the nonprivileged documents during the trial. Some court watchers�as well as Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, in her concurring opinion�came down on the majority for granting Congress what they saw as overbroad protections. “The Speech or Debate Clause was not intended to allow members of Congress to conceal corrupt and criminal activity. Taking a bribe is not part of the legitimate legislative process,” says Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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