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US judge refuses to dismiss bribery, money laundering charges against congressman

[JURIST] A federal judge rejected an argument Wednesday by US Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) [official profile; JURIST news archive] that an indictment against him unconstitutionally violated the Speech or Debate Clause [text; FindLaw backgrounder], saying that Jefferson has "focused immunity" rather than "expansive immunity" under the clause. Jefferson had argued that grand jury testimony given by his staffers violated the Speech or Debate clause because the staffers spoke about Jefferson's former position on the House Ways & Means Committee and his involvement in trade issues. In August, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled [PDF text; JURIST report] that the FBI's conduct during an 18-hour raid of Jefferson's congressional offices [JURIST report] was unconstitutional, finding the "compelled disclosure of privileged material to the Executive during execution of the search warrant" violated the Speech or Debate Clause because the FBI searched through privilege materials without giving Jefferson an opportunity to review the materials.

In June, Jefferson pleaded not guilty [JURIST report] to charges [DOJ press release] under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act [DOJ materials], including bribery, racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Jefferson is accused of accepting approximately $500,000 in bribes from numerous companies in the US and Africa and faces a maximum sentence of 235 years in prison if he is convicted on all counts. Jefferson's trial is currently scheduled to begin on February 28, but an appeal of Wednesday's ruling could delay the trial. Last January, former Jefferson aide Brett Pfeffer pleaded guilty [DOJ press release] to bribery charges for his role in the scheme. AP has more. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has additional coverage.

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