Some House Republicans are growing uneasy with the increasingly aggressive tactics being employed by the Justice Department in its burgeoning corruption probe of Congress, questioning whether federal investigators have gone too far in their techniques.
While Congress has virtually no recourse, some Members said last week that the Justice Department’s probe had begun to irk them because of reports of wiretaps, searches on Congressional grounds, open-ended document requests and demands to interview committee aides.
House Administration Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), whose purview includes oversight of the House grounds and Capitol Police, said last week a “variety” of Members had approached him in recent weeks to voice their concerns, including several who have no public connection to any of the investigations.
“A number of Members are very concerned about the way the Justice Department is investigating,” Ehlers said, adding that the general impression among some Members is that prosecutors want to “get” a Congressman.
“There’s a feeling that this would be a notch in their belt if they could get a Congressman,” Ehlers said.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), a member of the Judiciary Committee and former California attorney general, said he was growing concerned that some prosecutors and the media were viewing the simple act of accepting campaign contributions from donors with similar legislative agendas as a criminal act.
With Members “put into a situation” in which they need to constantly raise money, Lungren noted that each party has found natural bases of donors who support each other’s agendas. But that, he said, doesn’t add up to the criminal level of a “fairly delineated quid pro quo.”
“If we go so far as to say you can only accept funds from people who disagree with you, we’re in a crazy spot,” Lungren said.
The grumbling about Justice comes as federal prosecutors have ratcheted up several of their corruption investigations and deployed tactics that have caught the eye of Capitol Hill.
Last summer, federal investigators searched the car of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) while it was on Congressional grounds. The Justice Department has been investigating whether the New Orleans lawmaker took bribes while helping contractors obtain work from the U.S. Army and African nations, securing a plea agreement from a contractor earlier this month alleging he gave $400,000 to Jefferson’s family.
Then court documents unveiled earlier this month stated that one of the witnesses helped investigators by recording telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings with Jefferson.
In their wide-ranging probe of the bribery conspiracy orchestrated by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Justice Department recently took plea agreements from former aides to Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) on breaking the provision that forbids lobbying former House and Senate bosses for one year after departing Capitol Hill, a law that rarely had been enforced. The ex-aides also pleaded guilty to rarely prosecuted crimes involving giving illegal gifts to staffers and Members. In exchange, they are expected to receive lighter prison sentences for cooperating with Justice.