House legislators using constitutional clause to stop corruption investigations

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A clause in the U.S. Constitution is causing concern at the Justice Department, as legislators under investigation on corruption charges are using it to defend themselves from federal prosecutors, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The clause, simply known as the “speech and debate” clause, shields legislative work from executive branch interference. House members have successfully used the clause in recent years in corruption probes to limit the FBI’s ability to search for evidence and install wiretaps on their phones.

A 2007 court decision ruled that government agents violated the constitutional rights of then-Rep. William J.  Jefferson when they conducted a search of his Washington D.C. office. At the time, the Justice Department warned that the decision would “seriously and perhaps fatally” undermine congressional corruption investigations by limiting the scope of federal investigators.

A few days before the office raid, FBI agents, searching his Washington, D.C. home, found $90,000 in cash hidden in his kitchen’s freezer.  Jefferson was eventually convicted of corruption using that and other evidence, and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Since the Jefferson court ruling, the speech and debate defense has killed off, or severely limited the investigations into potential corruption activities of former-Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) and veteran Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.).

Instead of any opposition to the constitution clause, House leaders of both parties have been supportive of the use of it by members under investigation by Justice Department officials. A recently-filed brief by House lawyers compared the extensive wiretapping of Renzi, who was accused of financially benefitting from a land deal, to the wiretapping of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Law enforcement officials say that the clause is used now in virtually every defense, because many involve legislative acts in which the lawmaker was involved. For example, a potentially illegal action might involve a  lawmaker who introduces legislation in exchange for campaign contributions or other favors.

In the Visclosky investigation, investigators sought to determine if the lawmaker used his influence on the House’s Appropriations Committee, of which he was a member, to steer government contracts to clients of lobbyist PMA Group. Over a period of 10 years, Visclosky took $1.36 million in campaign donations from PMA, while voting for over $137 million in purchases from PMA clients.

The lawmaker’s lawyers refused to turn over most of the documents requested by investigators, citing the speech and debate clause. The investigation has stalled, and sources say the congressman is unlikely to be charged based on a lack of evidence.

More at The Washington Post

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