By the time FBI agents showed up at the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) on Saturday evening a week ago, the stage was set for a confrontation. Never before had federal officers raided a congressional office, but the Justice Department figured it had approached the search properly by first obtaining a warrant in the bribery case from a federal judge, timing their visit to keep it low profile and, to avoid the appearance of politics, not informing the White House first.
Accustomed to congressional deference, they were stunned when the situation blew up into a constitutional crisis over separation of powers and Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) demanded that Jefferson's files be returned. "The idea of turning criminal evidence back over to a criminal target is just preposterous," said one Justice official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Another law enforcement official noted that Hastert and other lawmakers had strongly supported the Justice Department's aggressive search and surveillance strategies for terrorism investigations. "It's fair to say we would have expected similar support when it comes to public corruption," the official said.
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