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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 1, 2006

Rules needed for FBI probes into Congress

Congressional leaders who raised a stink over an FBI raid on the office of a member under investigation for bribery and influence-peddling have a legitimate point.

This precedent-setting raid offers an opportunity for Congress and the Bush administration to set specific rules for this sort of hostile engagement. That work transcends the specifics of this case.

Congress, the administration and the courts are co-equal branches of government.

But reality is hardly that simple. Congress subpoenas members of the administration regularly. Federal officials regularly indict and sometimes convict members of Congress for crimes and misdemeanors.

The courts have hauled representatives of both branches before the bar, often over their strenuous objections.

This occurs all the time.

In the case of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, the objection is the strong-armed way in which the FBI proceeded. Although the feds had a court warrant to look through materials in Jefferson's office, the matter surely could have been handled with greater respect for the prerogatives and independence of Congress.

A brighter line could have been drawn between the alleged criminal activities of Rep. Jefferson and his legitimate duties as a member of Congress.

The FBI did make some effort here by appointing a special team to go through the documents seized to determine which might be relevant to their criminal case and which fall within the scope of congressional privilege.

That's reasonable. But a further step would not have hurt, including making congressional leadership or other House officials aware of the search itself.

There's a precedent at stake. Surely no one objects to an FBI investigation of outright criminal behavior, and there is considerable evidence that something of that nature occurred here. Members of Congress are not above the law.

But the administration cannot and should not have the right to declare open season on the offices and activities of members of Congress.

One only has to reach back into recent history, such as the Watergate era or the activities of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, to know the dangers involved.

This case must become the focus for a clearer understanding of the rights and privileges of our lawmaking body and when the executive branch can intrude.

President Bush's decision to put the entire matter on ice for 45 days while the two sides negotiate is a good first step. During that time, there should be a clear agreement on when the executive branch can walk into the offices and activities of the legislative branch, and under what conditions that is permissible.