The battle between the FBI and Congress over documents seized in a raid on the office of Congressman William Jefferson, a Democrat from New Orleans, turned Washington upside down last week. The FBI, which has long been investigating allegations that Jefferson accepted money in exchange for helping businessmen secure deals in Africa, says it had already found $90,000 wrapped in foil in the freezer of Jefferson's apartment and had a videotape of him allegedly accepting $100,000 in bribe money. But when federal agents, who had been trying to get documents from Jefferson for nine months, obtained a warrant and searched his Capitol Hill office, they found an unlikely adversary: House Speaker Dennis Hastert. The Illinois Republican argued that the search violated the separation of powers between the Legislative and Executive branches and demanded that the FBI return the seized documents.
Hastert grew even angrier when ABC News, quoting unnamed federal law-enforcement officials, reported that Hastert was being investigated in another corruption case, involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Justice Department denied the story, but Hastert, suspicious of the report's timing, accused the FBI of trying to "intimidate" him.
As Hastert led congressional appeals to the White House, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller made clear that they would not comply with any presidential order to return the seized materials--and were willing to risk being fired for their defiance, says a law-enforcement source. So the President instead ordered the FBI to hand over the documents to the Solicitor General's office, which is not involved in the probe. The documents will be sealed for 45 days while Congress and the Administration seek agreement on what prosecutors may view.
Bush's order didn't totally calm a jittery Capitol Hill. Two other corruption investigations by the Justice Department could implicate members of Congress: the Abramoff case and a probe of defense contractors' ties to several lawmakers. The FBI says it's just doing its job. "We go where the evidence takes us," says a senior official. "Why should a Congressman be off limits?"