|Court order may delay Jefferson investigation|
By Bruce Alpert
and Bill Walsh
Washington bureau - NOLA.com
WASHINGTON —In an order that could delay the government’s decision on whether to indict Rep. William Jefferson, a three-judge panel has put off until at least the spring a final decision on legal challenges to some documents taken in a historic raid of the congressman’s Capitol Hill office last May.
While the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington D.C., said that the Justice Department can immediately begin examining those documents and computer files not challenged by Jefferson and his attorneys, it is the disputed documents that are expected to be most critical to the government’s 20-month probe into allegations of bribery and corruption. Jefferson has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged in the investigation that has netted guilty pleas from two of his former associates.
“I can’t imagine that the (unchallenged) documents would yield anything of value to the government,” said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law expert at the University of Richmond.
The ruling will likely force another delay in the case, which began in March 2005 and has stalled over the question of whether the search of the congressional office breached the separation between the executive and legislative branches.
Justice Department officials could decide that the additional delay in the investigation it hoped to wrap up shortly after its May 20-21 raid of Jefferson’s office is unacceptable and move forward based on evidence it has already collected in the case. But that would make it harder for the agency to justify what was a highly controversial raid of Jefferson’s office, drawing charges of overreach by the top Republican and Democrat in the House of Representatives.
Justice Department officials refused comment Tuesday on the Court of Appeals ruling by Judges David Sentielle, Karen Henderson and David Tatel. The three judges ordered that briefs in the case be filed between Feb. 28 and April 13, with oral arguments scheduled for sometime after the last brief is filed.
Robert Trout, Jefferson’s attorney, said that the ruling reflects “the continuing respect by the judges for the importance of the speech or debate privilege and we appreciate that.” The speech or debate clause was intended by the framers of the Constitution to promote the separation of powers between the three branches of the federal government by shielding lawmakers from harassment in the discharge of their duties.
Jefferson, who is seeking reelection in a Dec. 9 runoff against fellow Democrat Karen Carter, did not comment on the ruling.
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who has been critical of the raid of Jefferson’s office, said that it “triggered an unnecessary constitutional crisis and served to delay any indictment to Jefferson’s obvious advantage.”
Although the Appeals Court panel said that the Justice Department can gain immediate access to the seized material not challenged by his lawyers, a process will still need to be worked out to accomplish that. By court order, Jefferson’s lawyers have been raising objections to certain material in closed hearings before Chief U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan.
No one outside of Jefferson’s lawyers, Jefferson and Hogan know which material has been challenged, and what material has not been and therefore can be turned over to the Justice Department investigators.
Trout said that he won’t stand in the way of turning over the material and will work out a process with the Justice Department. “We are in the process of complying with the court’s order,” he said.
John Harrison, a constitutional law expert at the University of Virginia, said that Jefferson’s lawyers probably don’t want to overplay their hands.
“Jefferson’s lawyers will most strongly resist release of the documents that are most unfavorable to their client, but their argument is based on the Speech or Debate clause privilege including, I think, the claim that even going through documents to find those that aren’t privileged is impermissible,” he said.
The investigation of Jefferson began March 15, 2005, when an investor in a Western African technology project championed by Jefferson went to the FBI complaining that she may have been defrauded of a multimillion dollar investment. In July 2005, the government secretly recorded the witness, Lori Mody, giving Jefferson $100,000 that the congressman, according to the FBI, suggested would be used to bribe the vice president of Nigeria to advance the project. All but $10,000 of the cash was later found in the freezer of Jefferson’s Washington, D.C. home.
The probe has netted guilty pleas from two former Jefferson associates, including Vernon Jackson, the head of iGate Inc., who said in court documents that he paid more $400,000 to a company controlled by Jefferson’s family in return for the congressman’s help getting telecommunications contracts in Nigeria and Ghana.
Bruce Alpert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (202) 383-7861. Bill Walsh can be reached at email@example.com or at (202) 383-7817.