“I think it represents an outrageous intrusion on the separation of powers between the executive branch and legislative branch,” Jefferson told reporters on Monday.
Jefferson’s lawyers are considering filing a legal motion to challenge the search, but no action has been taken yet, sources close to the case said.
Jefferson has also refused to resign from the House despite the array serious allegations against him, which include bribery, fraud, and conspiracy to bribe foreign officials.
FBI agents received permission to execute the search warrant on Jefferson’s office last Thursday from Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, although they did not descend on Rayburn until Saturday evening, when the building was empty.
House officials were given no advance warning of the FBI raid. Acting Chief Christopher McGaffin of the Capitol Police was contacted shortly before the FBI entered the Rayburn House Office Building on Saturday evening and was told to go there, but he was not told why.
There is no other case on record of a Member’s Congressional office being searched, and Hill leaders from both sides of the aisle fear that the Justice Department has improperly trampled on a Congressional privilege rooted in the Constitution, including violating the “Speech or Debate Clause.”
Justice Department officials defended the move as necessary.
“Of course, we understand the equities involved here and the institutional concerns,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Monday. “I will admit that these were unusual steps that were taken in response to an unusual set of circumstances.”
Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department’s sole goal in conducting the Jefferson search was to aid in the prosecution of a corruption case against a sitting Member, not to infringe upon Congressional privileges.
Sierra also noted that Hogan had approved the warrant and that the Justice Department had instituted special procedures in order to ensure that “potentially politically sensitive, non-responsive items” were returned to Jefferson. Two Justice Department attorneys and an FBI agent will act as a “Filter Team” to evaluate materials taken during the search, and Hogan will decide the fate of questionable documents.
“Search warrants are issued in criminal cases every day,” said Sierra, who pointed out that federal prosecutors had still not received documents and materials subpoenaed from Jefferson back in August. “This was the way it had to be.”
Sierra declined to comment on who within the Justice Department made the decision to seek a search warrant or the extent or nature of the debate with the department over the propriety of such an action.
But several ex-lawmakers and Congressional experts were outraged by the FBI search.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) objected to the FBI raid, calling it “the most blatant violation of the Constitutional Separation of Powers in my lifetime” in an e-mail sent to Members on Sunday night.
“The President should respond accordingly and should discipline (probably fire) whoever exhibited this extraordinary violation,” Gingrich told his former colleagues. “There is no excuse for the FBI for the first time in history searching a congressional office and apparently doing so in total regard of due process as it relates to the Legislative Branch.”