Jefferson's bribery conviction: a mixed legacy
Justice Department prevailed in the infamous 'freezer cash' case, but it lost ground in law enforcement's ability to wiretap or investigate members of Congress.
Federal prosecutors this week won their case against former US Rep. William Jefferson, who is expected to go to jail for bribery and public corruption. But there's a bittersweet quality to their victory: In the end, the legacy of this case may be that members of Congress actually gained protections from corruption investigations.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Jefferson – a nine-term Democrat from Louisiana before he was voted out of office in 2008 – became famous for stashing $90,000 in marked bills in his home freezer. But he also gained notoriety as the first member of Congress to have his office raided by the FBI.
The raid was later repudiated by the courts – which backed up congressional leaders' contention that such intrusions gave the executive branch access to constitutionally protected materials related to a lawmaker’s official duties, including floor speeches and committee work.
“The search of Jefferson’s Rayburn House office is having serious repercussions for all other criminal prosecutions for members of Congress,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which is tracking investigations of 16 members of Congress.
Advance notice of a search
The Jefferson case prompted congressional leaders to take a very expansive interpretation of the “speech and debate” clause of the US Constitution, which protects lawmakers from prosecution for their legislative activities. The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a member of Congress must be provided advance notice and the right to review materials before a search is conducted, and the US Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
“It is now very difficult [for law enforcement] to [wire]tap a member of Congress and be sure [that lawmaker] will never have a conversation about what happened on the floor or in committee,” says Ms. Sloan.
At the time of the FBI raid in May 2006, then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert and
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi jointly declared it a violation of separation of powers in that it gave federal investigators unconstitutional access to a lawmaker's privileged materials.
“This was the case of the Department of Justice making bad law for itself,” says Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School here. “This was a very thuggish and amateurish raid conducted on an office of Congress. The result was to make Jefferson a victim and to radically increase the delays and cost in the case.”