Protecting the Rule of Law
By Congressman Joe Pitts
On the evening of May 20, FBI agents entered the Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-LA). The agents, operating under the authority of a warrant obtained from a U.S. District Court judge, were at Jefferson's office to gather evidence in an ongoing bribery investigation centered on the lawmaker.
In the days immediately following the search, several of my colleagues from both parties raised strong concerns over the action taken by the FBI. They noted it was the first time the Justice Department had ever searched the public office of a sitting Member of Congress and claimed the search violated the separation of powers principle outlined in the Constitution.
I respect my colleagues' sincere concern for Constitutional doctrine, but they are misguided in this case. One of our nation's most foundational principles is the rule of law. This principle says that no one in America is above the law, including our leaders at the highest levels of government.
While the search of Jefferson's office on May 20 made big news, it was hardly the first action taken in the probe of his alleged corruption. In fact, the Justice Department had been building its case for months.
On January 11, Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to Jefferson, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and aiding and abetting the solicitation of bribes by a Member of Congress. In May, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. During sentencing, Pfeffer told the judge, "I've gone over in my head 10 million times why I didn't look [Jefferson] in the eye and say, No.'"
On May 3, Vernon Jackson, a Kentucky businessman, pleaded guilty to paying Jefferson more than $400,000 in bribes in exchange for Jefferson's help in obtaining telecommunications contracts. Jackson said he had been paying the bribes since 2001.
Last July, Jefferson was videotaped accepting $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant. During a raid of Jefferson's home a few days later, investigators found $90,000 of that money in Jefferson's freezer, wrapped in foil and put in frozen food containers.
Despite what some are saying, the FBI raid on Jefferson's Congressional office is simply not a case of an overzealous Justice Department going overboard. Bribery is not protected by the "speech and debate" clause of the Constitution. It is a crime and should be prosecuted.
Our Founders envisioned Members of Congress as citizen legislators, not a separate class of shielded elites who aren't required to abide by the law. As such, there shouldn't be anything sacred about a Congressman's office that deems it off-limits to criminal investigation.
If there is evidence indicating that it is being used for illicit purposes, it should be subject to the same searches provided for by a court-obtained warrant as any other office would be.
Throughout this affair, Jefferson has consistently said he is not guilty. Like anyone, he is entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But those tasked with investigating his alleged wrongdoing should not be hampered by misguided and insufficient Constitutional objections.
Investigators are taught to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. In this case, the ample evidence collected over the course of more than 14 months led directly to Jefferson's official activity as a Member of Congress.
The Justice Department simply did its job in this case. By doing so, the rule of law has been affirmed, and Americans have been reassured that neither their elected officials nor anyone else in America is above the law.