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Two months after leaving office, former Attorney General John Ashcroft opens a lobbying firm on Washington’s prestigious K Street, where he markets his contacts in the Justice and Homeland Security departments to, among others, ChoicePoint, a company that brokers credit data and other personal information on American citizens to government and private entities. The Ashcroft Group quickly earns over $269,000 from four clients, and, the Chicago Tribune will write, “appears to be developing a practice centered on firms that want to capitalize on a government demand for homeland security technology that boomed under sometimes controversial policies he promoted while in office.” Another Ashcroft client is the Oracle Corporation, one of the world’s largest software developers, who, according to the Tribune, will use Ashcroft’s clout with the Justice Department to win approval of a multibillion-dollar acquisition. A third client, LTU Technologies, makes software that analyzes large collections of video and other visual images. Ashcroft’s firm will soon sign a contract with Israel Aircraft Industries to help secure Bush administration approval for the firm to sell weapons to South Korea. The Tribune will write, “While Ashcroft’s lobbying is within government rules for former officials, it is nonetheless a departure from the practice of attorneys general for at least the last 30 years.” Ashcroft is the first former attorney general to open his own lobbying firm. Charles Tiefer, a former deputy general counsel to the House of Representatives, will note, “The attorney general is very much supposed to embody the pure rule of law like the Department of Justice’s statue of ‘Blind Justice’ and he’s not expected afterwards to cloak with the mantle of his former office a bunch of greedy interests.” Author and media critic Frank Rich will later write: “Thus did the government official who recklessly expanded the market for domestic surveillance while in office find a nominally legal way to make a profit on his nominally legal policies as soon as he was out the door. It was the perfect Enron-esque coda to his wartime career.” (Rich 2006, pp. 208; Berkowitz 2/14/2006)
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft denies any conflict of interest in his involvement in a deal for the Justice Department to monitor a corporation accused of breaking the law. Ashcroft, now a lobbyist for the Ashcroft Group, agreed for his firm to become a Justice Department monitor for Zimmer Holdings Inc, which manufactures replacement hip and knee joints. Zimmer agreed to pay $310 million in fees to settle charges of bribing doctors. Ashcroft was first asked to get involved in the deal in September 2007 by New Jersey US Attorney Christopher Christie, who worked for Ashcroft when he headed the department; reports indicate that Christie hand-picked Ashcroft in return for keeping Zimmer out of court. Such a deal is known as a “deferred prosecution agreement.” Ashcroft denies any involvement in the bidding for the contract, said to be worth between $28-$52 million—the Ashcroft Group is being paid $750,000 per month and $895 an hour, allegedly all from Zimmer—and denies any conflict of interest in his position.
Denial by Ashcroft - The no-bid contract was not “a backroom, sweetheart deal,” Ashcroft insists to a House Judiciary subcommittee investigating the deal. Ashcroft also denies that any public money has been spent on the deal, which was most likely engineered as part of a settlement agreement between Zimmer and the federal government. “There is not a conflict, there is not an appearance of a conflict,” says Ashcroft.
Alleged Conflict of Interests - The panel chairwoman, Linda Sanchez (D-CA) disagrees, saying that Ashcroft secured “what appeared to be a backroom, sweetheart deal” to serve as an independent corporate monitor and collect the multimillion-dollar fees. Sanchez also notes there was no public notice, no bidding, and Ashcroft had to use considerable time to prepare for the assignment and learn more about the business. She asks Ashcroft with apparent disbelief, “You don’t believe that it may be a conflict of interest in a former employee hiring the former boss, or suggesting that he be hired, for a very lucrative monitoring contract?” Ashcroft says that such a situation is not a conflict at all.
Monitoring "Lax" - Fellow House member Frank Pallone (D-NJ) says the current system of selecting monitors such as Ashcroft is far too lax, and can easily be manipulated by corporations with friends inside the Justice Department. Pallone is sponsoring legislation that would require federal judges to approve monitoring contracts.
Republican Reaction - Meanwhile, House Republicans defend Ashcroft, with one, Chris Cannon (R-UT) calling Sanchez’s questions “appalling.” Ashcroft’s ethics are “unquestioned,” he asserts. (Associated Press 3/11/2008; Goldstein 3/11/2008)
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