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DC Circuit rules prosecutors cannot subpoena House ethics committee testimony

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit [official website] announced [opinion, PDF] Thursday that prosecutors cannot subpoena statements made by a former congressman to the US House of Representatives Ethics Committee [official website], unsealing [order, PDF] a June 23 opinion. In overturning the lower court's ruling, the court ruled that the Constitution's Speech and Debate Clause [Article I, Section 6 text], which states that "for any speech or debate in either House, [Congresspersons] shall not be questioned in any other place," precludes prosecutors from using statements made by former US congressman Tom Feeney (R-FL) [campaign website] before the Ethics Committee in a criminal investigation. At issue are a number of statements and documents produced for the Committee by Feeney while he was under investigation by the committee for taking a trip to Scotland allegedly paid for by former lobbyist Jack Abramoff [JURIST news archive]. Attorneys for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] attempted to subpoena those statements and documents, but the ruling quashed the subpoena. In a concurring opinion, Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh called for an en banc rehearing to clarify the court's position on the Speech and Debate Clause.

Feeney failed to retain his seat in the House [AP report], losing in last year's election as his Democrat challenger emphasized Feeney's ties to the jailed Abramoff. The DOJ began investigating Feeney after he admitted to the House Ethics Committee he could not be sure who paid for his 2003 trip to Scotland. The Committee determined that by taking the trip Feeney had violated House Rules [Washington Times report], and Feeney paid $5,643 to the US Treasury. Feeney originally contacted the Ethics Committee after media reports indicated that Abramoff had paid for the trip.

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