Rep. William Jefferson, the Louisiana Democrat under indictment on corruption charges, won a partial victory in court Friday as an appellate tribunal ruled that federal agents went too far when they searched his office last year.
FBI agents violated the Constitution when they viewed legislative papers in Jefferson's Capitol Hill office, the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, citing a principle that goes back hundreds of years, to the time of all-powerful English monarchs.
"Accordingly, we hold that the congressman is entitled to the return of all legislative materials (originals and copies) that are protected," the court ruled.
The FBI raid on Jefferson's office was the first time a federal lawmaker's office was searched in a criminal investigation. The incident ignited a debate across party lines, with several members of Congress complaining that the executive branch was intruding on their domain.
Friday's ruling seems unlikely to derail the prosecution of Jefferson, who was indicted on June 4 on 16 felony counts charging that he put his office up for sale in hopes of reaping hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from nearly a dozen companies involved in oil, communications, sugar and other businesses, often for projects to be carried out in Africa.
For one thing, the appeals court rejected the notion that all material seized in the raid on Jefferson's office must be returned. The three-judge panel held that the agents' copying of computer hard drives and other electronic media was "constitutionally permissible" because Jefferson will have a chance to show that that material, too, is legislative in nature and thus should not be disclosed.