Saturday, September 29, 2007

Prosecutors Subpoena California Congressman and Five Aides in Abramoff-Related Investigation

A federal grand jury investigating Capitol Hill corruption subpoenaed California Representative John Doolittle and five of his aides for a number of documents created over the past eleven years.  The Congressman has been under investigation for over a year, including a search of his Virginia home, related to dealings with former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is serving a six year sentence in federal prison and has been cooperating in the Department of Justice's continuing inquiry into corruption in Congress. Two of Doolittle's aide reportedly testified before the grand jury recently.  According to a story in The Hill (here), Representative Doolittle's lawyer asserts that the subpoenas cover "“virtually every record including legislative records," and the Congressman plans to fight them on the ground that the records are protected by the Speech or Debate Clause. 

Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution provides that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, [members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other Place."  The two leading Supreme Court cases on the scope of the Speech or Debate Clause are United States v. Brewster, 408 U.S. 501 (1972), and United States v. Helstoski, 442 U.S. 477 (1979). In Brewster, the Court stated, "[A] Member of Congress may be prosecuted under a criminal statute provided that the Government's case does not rely on legislative acts or the motivation for legislative acts. A legislative act has consistently been defined as an act generally done in Congress in relation to the business before it. In sum, the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits inquiry only into those things generally said or done in the House or the Senate in the performance of official duties and into the motivation for those acts." [Italics added]  In Helstoski, the Court explained, "Likewise, a promise to introduce a bill is not a legislative act. As to what restrictions the Clause places on the admission of evidence, our concern is not with the ‘specificity’ of the reference. Instead, our concern is whether there is mention of a legislative act. To effectuate the intent of the Clause, the Court has construed it to protect other ‘legislative acts’ such as utterances in committee hearings and reports. But it is clear from the language of the Clause that protection extends only to an act that has already been performed. A promise to deliver a speech, to vote, or to solicit other votes at some future date is not a legislative act."  The government will have to walk a fine line in seeking materials that do not come within the definition of "legislative act."

The D.C. Circuit's recent decision related to the search for records in the office of Louisiana Representative William Jefferson will likely be a favorable precedent for Representative Doolittle because the court held that the Executive branch cannot view legislative materials protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.  The government is seeking rehearing en banc to clarify the scope of the privilege afforded members of Congress by the Constitution (see earlier post here).  The number of investigations of Capitol Hill corruption, and the link to official acts of Congress, likely means this issue will arise with some regularity in the near future.  If the D.C. Circuit does not grant review by the full court, look for the Department of Justice to seek Supreme Court review of the issue.  (ph)

Corruption, Investigations, Privileges | Permalink

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