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Jefferson Office Raid Stirs Rift with Attorney General


Congress is on Memorial Day recess, but one committee actually will meet tomorrow, to have a hearing about the separation of powers between the President and Congress. This is a very hot topic now, because of a raid a little more than a week ago by the FBI on a member of Congress' office on Capitol Hill, first such raid in US history. It's touched off a lot of interesting speculation and conversations, and well, puzzling struggles going on in Washington.

We're joined by NPR's senior Washington Editor, Ron Elving. Ron, first of all, this is really about more than the search of Congressman William Jefferson's office, isn't it?

RON ELVING reporting:

Yes, Alex, in the same sense that Watergate was not just about a burglary. Now, as then, there were greater issues at stake, and the incident at hand here, the search of Jefferson's office, is really just a match to a fuse.

CHADWICK: He was accused of taking bribes. They went there to look for evidence. What have we learned since last week that has made a big difference? What is it that happened over the weekend?

ELVING: Over the weekend, published reports made it clear just how seriously this confrontation with Congress is being taken, at the highest level of the Bush Administration. We already knew that Congress was up in arms, and when it began to look as though the President might return the materials that were taken from the Jefferson office, the Deputy Attorney General in charge of the case started talking about resigning.

CHADWICK: He was going to resign. This is the Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty. Is he such an important figure in the administration that that would bother Mr. Bush and his senior aides?

ELVING: Not necessarily just for himself, but his boss, the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, who is extremely close to the President, was reported to be willing to back him up, as was the FBI Director, Robert Mueller. So you had the top three law enforcement officers in the country all talking about walking.

CHADWICK: Wow. So the President stepped in. We reported this on Friday. He ordered this 45-day timeout for everybody with all the seized materials to be sealed, so no one is going to actually look at this, whatever the FBI got.

ELVING: Yes, and that's restored a kind of calm for the moment, Alex, but there are big issues just below the surface here. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has shown a total commitment, not only to the principle here, the separation of powers, but he's also shown an urgent interest in the workings of the Justice Department in all these matters, and that clearly goes beyond just the Jefferson case.

CHADWICK: But he's one of Mr. Bush's really biggest allies on Capitol Hill?

ELVING: In the first term, he backed the President on virtually everything. But in the second term, the last year or so, there have been growing differences between them, differing interests. Hastert is not enthusiastic, or was not enthusiastic about the President's Social Security overhaul and the details. There were differences on spending, and then very large differences on immigration policy. And earlier this month, Hastert felt personally stung when his long-time friend Porter Goss was ousted as CIA Director, and now he feels badly misused by this sudden search of a Congressional office in defiance of precedent and custom.

CHADWICK: Even though this is the office of a Democratic Congressman?

ELVING: Yes. Now, let's remember, Jefferson himself has not been charged with any kind of a crime, but the FBI says it has videotape of him taking a suitcase full of cash and that later most of that cash turned up in Jefferson's freezer. But this case is a rather isolated one. No other members of Congress appear to be involved in the Jefferson matter. There's another set of cases being investigated by a special justice task force that involves the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. You remember him?


ELVING: Already convicted, who is talking a lot about a lot of prominent Republicans with whom he did business.

CHADWICK: Yes, prominent Republicans who possibly could include Speaker Hastert.

ELVING: That is was ABC reported last week, that it - that the Speaker was in the mix in what Justice was going, but of course Justice immediately said he was not a target of the probe, or even a subject of the probe. What may be going on here, through, is a lot of complaint from a lot of prominent Republicans that the Justice Department task force is widening the definition of what would be a criminal bribery, widening the definition to include some things that might be fairly normal campaign finance practice, and that's quite alarming.

CHADWICK: And this term wide net, I guess it just keeps getting wider and wider.

ELVING: Indeed, it does. And that's precisely why some people on Capitol Hill want to see the parameters set, and want to hear the whistle blow.

CHADWICK: Okay, good. NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, thank you again.

ELVING: Thank you, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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