[JURIST] Lawyers for the US Department of Justice [official website] argued in a federal court filing Tuesday that the government has no legal obligation to return documents seized by the FBI [JURIST report] from the office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) [official website], who is under investigation in connection with a bribery scheme involving a Kentucky telecommunications firm that was granted contracts in Nigeria. Jefferson filed a motion last week claiming the documents were protected under the Speech or Debate Clause [text] of the US Constitution. The DOJ contends that the clause grants immunity only for documents and actions related to legislation and official duties, not alleged malfeasance. The DOJ also described the precautions it took to ensure that it did not confiscate any privileged material: an independent “filter team” evaluated claims of protection made by Jefferson before turning documents over to prosecutors. It nonetheless said it would voluntarily provide Jefferson with copies of the materials it had seized.
The search of Jefferson's office has sparked bipartisan criticism from the House of Representatives, including an accusation from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) that the DOJ crossed the line of separation of powers [press release; JURIST report]. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, and FBI Director Robert Mueller were among a host of government officials who said they would resign [JURIST report] if forced to hand back information gathered during the search, causing President Bush to order the documents to be sealed for 45 days [JURIST report] until the matter can be resolved. CNN has more.