A unanimous appeals court panel yesterday rejected a bid by Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) to dismiss his indictment on bribery and conspiracy charges, batting away arguments that prosecutors flouted the special protection he enjoys as a member of Congress.
Jefferson argued that the grand jury improperly heard evidence about his work from three staff aides. He asked a lower-court judge to order a special review of the material that prosecutors amassed against him; after his request was denied, he appealed.
Three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit yesterday disagreed with Jefferson's interpretation, saying the staff members only glancingly touched on legislative business and instead focused their testimony on the lawmaker's connections to Africa and the favors he allegedly provided to companies seeking business there.
Led by Judge Robert B. King, the panel concluded that the lower-court ruling was "entirely appropriate" and said the case should proceed to trial. Judge Paul V. Niemeyer and Judge Allyson K. Duncan joined the decision.
The Constitution's "speech or debate" clause bars other branches of government from using lawmakers' work against them to build criminal cases. The argument has grown more popular as the Justice Department and the FBI have made public corruption a top law enforcement priority.
"We're disappointed by the decision," said Robert P. Trout, a lawyer for Jefferson. "We are continuing to study the opinion, and we are considering our options."
Dana Boente, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to comment yesterday because the case is pending.
Jefferson has the option of asking the entire Fourth Circuit court to hear the dispute. He also could seek review by the Supreme Court. No such decisions have been made, lawyers involved in the case said.
The uncertainty means that Jefferson's December trial date almost certainly will move into 2009, almost four years after the FBI raided his office in the Rayburn House Office Building and in a separate search uncovered $90,000 in cash in his home freezer.
In the race for his House seat, delayed by Hurricane Gustav, Jefferson won the Democratic primary this month and is leading in polls for the general election in early December.