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Hastert Leak to ABC News Meant to Intimidate House Leader
May 25, 2006

President Bush stepped into a confrontation between the Justice Department and Congress on Thursday, ordering that documents seized in an FBI raid on a lawmaker's office be sealed for 45 days.

His spokesman also labeled as "false, false, false" charges that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' department had tried to intimidate Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

In an effort to defuse an intensifying, election-year dispute between the Republican-led Congress and his administration, Bush, facing growing complaints from lawmakers in both parties that he has abused presidential powers, called for a cooling-off period.

"Our government has not faced such a dilemma in more than two centuries," he said in a statement. "Yet after days of discussions, it is clear these differences will require more time to be worked out."

Bush granted one of Hastert's demands, directing the FBI to surrender documents and computerized records taken last weekend from the office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. He ordered Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has a separate office in the Justice Department, to take custody of them.

The president said no one is above the law and that he continued to support the investigation of Jefferson. The eight-term congressman is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars to facilitate a telephone investment deal in Africa.

"Those who violate the law - including a member of Congress - should and will be held to account," the president said. "This investigation will go forward and justice will be served."

Within minutes, the heads of the battling institutions stood down and began talking about solutions.

Hastert said the order would "give us some time to step back and try to negotiate with the Department of Justice."

Gonzales said the move provides "time to reach a permanent solution that allows this investigation to continue while accommodating the concerns of certain members of Congress."

The FBI said it would comply with Bush's order.

Jefferson called the order "a good first step but ultimately, the answer would be to return the documents."

The time-out came five days after the FBI, acting on a search warrant signed a week ago by a federal judge, raided Jefferson's office as part of the bribery investigation.

In an affidavit supporting the search warrant, the FBI said it had videotaped Jefferson last summer taking $100,000 in bribe money and that agents had found $90,000 of that cash stuffed in a freezer in his home.

Two people have pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson to promote the high-tech business venture in Africa. One of them, Brett Pfeffer, a former aide to the congressman, was scheduled to be sentenced Friday in Alexandria, Va. Jefferson has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.

Historians said the raid was the first such search of a House or Senate member's office since the first Congress convened 219 years ago.

Its unprecedented nature and the lack of notice given Hastert set off loud complaints from both Republicans and Democrats that the administration was overstepping its authority.

More than a dozen agents who convened on Jefferson's office Saturday night conducted a search that stretched into Sunday morning. They took two boxes of paper records and made a copy of everything on Jefferson's personal computer, Robert Trout, Jefferson's lawyer, said in his legal filing Wednesday demanding the return of the materials.

The only items specifically identified by Trout as having been taken by the FBI are letters requesting donations to the legal defense fund Jefferson created to defray his legal bills.

The FBI and prosecutors refused to allow lawyers for Jefferson or the House of Representatives to be present for the search, Trout and House officials said.

The dispute escalated all week. Hastert complained personally to Bush at least twice. He was joined Wednesday in rare agreement by his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, in a statement demanding the FBI give back the material it seized.

On Thursday, Hastert accused the Justice Department of trying to intimidate him after ABC News quoted unnamed top law enforcement officials as saying Wednesday the speaker was being investigated in a broad influence-peddling probe centered on convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The Justice Department issued two denials of the report. Hastert demanded a retraction from the network, which refused. Hastert's lawyers threatened Thursday to sue the network. ABC again stood by its story.

"This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people," Hastert said on Chicago's WGN radio.

White House spokesman Tony Snow called the accusation "false, false, false."

"They're not leaking information to try to undermine the House speaker," Snow said. "I got pretty categorical denials."

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