WASHINGTON -- The House voted yesterday to strip Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana of a powerful committee assignment, while an effort by the embattled Democrat to fight a search of his Capitol Hill office ran into a skeptical federal judge.
The voice vote - without debate or dissent - to expel Jefferson from the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee appears to be the first time the House has taken such a step against a member who has not been charged with a crime.
The vote against Jefferson, who is the target of a federal bribery investigation, was infused with issues of race and election-year politics, as well as the reality of Justice Department investigations that have snagged members of both parties.
The action followed a decision Thursday night by the House Democratic Caucus to endorse a proposal by its leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, to remove Jefferson from the committee. Pelosi described the move as designed to show that Democrats are serious about ethics. Democrats hope to make corruption in the Republican-controlled Congress a major theme in their effort to win the House and Senate in November.
The Congressional Black Caucus said Jefferson was being unfairly punished before even being charged with a crime. Some in the 43-member caucus have said Jefferson was singled out because he is black.
Through a spokeswoman, Jefferson declined to comment after the floor vote. But Thursday night he accused Pelosi of using him to fuel her political ambitions. "Unfortunately, Minority Leader Pelosi wants so badly to win leadership in the House that she has persuaded the caucus to sacrifice my constituents - who, after Katrina, need my leadership on my committee more than ever," he said.
The eight-term congressman is being investigated for possibly using his office to promote business ventures in Africa in which he and his relatives had an interest.
Yesterday, lawyers for Jefferson and the House leadership went to federal court to challenge an FBI search of his Capitol Hill office on May 20-21, saying it violated the doctrine of separation of powers and the "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution. The constitutional provision protects members of Congress from lawsuits and forced testimony stemming from their legislative acts.
The search of Jefferson's office, which involved a dozen FBI agents, was unprecedented in congressional history. A sworn affidavit unsealed as part of the raid showed that in August 2005 the FBI had videotaped Jefferson accepting $100,000 from an undercover informant. The money was ostensibly intended as a payment to a Nigerian businessman. Some $90,000 of it was later found in the freezer of his Capitol Hill home wrapped in foil.
Jefferson's lawyers have demanded that the material seized during the May search be returned to him; House leaders have endorsed the position.
But U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who signed off on the search warrant in May, indicated at the hearing yesterday that he thought it was legal.
"The speech or debate clause is not a hide and conceal clause," the judge said. The judge said he would issue a ruling later but said that he was "not sanguine about the arguments advanced" on behalf of Jefferson.
At the hearing, the congressman's lawyers said there were circumstances under which searches of congressional offices were allowed. But they said that strict procedures had to be followed and that they were not in the case of Jefferson.
Robert Trout, a lawyer for Jefferson, said the search was illegal because the FBI had not given Jefferson the chance to be present and to go through his records to separate those that involved his official work as a lawmaker.
But Hogan noted that ordinary citizens do not enjoy such a right, and he said such a rule could frustrate legitimate law-enforcement efforts. He asked Trout whether a congressman ought to have the right to review documents in his office when there was evidence of illegal activity in the office, such as ledgers reflecting cocaine activity. Trout said a congressman should have that right.
In a later exchange, Hogan told Trout, "I don't see how you could execute search warrants under your theory at all."
Trout argued that there are other methods that agents can use to obtain documents from members of Congress, such as through a subpoena. But under questioning from Hogan, he conceded that Jefferson had not turned over any of the documents that investigators had been seeking under a subpoena issued in August.
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.