Monday, January 16, 2006

Today's Clown: John Ashcroft

Ashcroft stakes out lucrative new ground

Chicago Tribune

Published Friday, January 13, 2006

WASHINGTON - Less than three months after registering as a lobbyist, former Attorney General John Ashcroft has banked at least $269,000 from just four clients and 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.

Three clients of Ashcroft’s lobbying firm want his help in selling data or software with homeland security applications, according to government filings.

A fourth, Israel Aircraft Industries International, is competing with Chicago’s Boeing Co. to sell the government of South Korea a billion-dollar airborne early warning system.

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. While others have counseled corporate clients or perhaps even lobbied in a specific case as part of law firm business, Ashcroft is the first in recent memory to open a lobbying firm.

Former lawmakers and other senior government officials routinely pass through the Washington revolving door and become advocates for commercial interests seeking to influence government, but the practice of former attorneys general has been to move to think tanks or academia or return to the practice of law.

The office of the attorney general, along with the secretaries of state, defense and treasury, is among the oldest and most prestigious in the president’s Cabinet.

"One would have thought that a former attorney general wouldn’t be doing that," said John Schmidt, a former associate attorney general in the Clinton administration, who is now a lawyer at Mayer Brown.

"To take the kind of prestige and stature of the attorney general" and lobby ..., "it seems a little demeaning of the office, honestly," he said.

Attorneys general, while not always apolitical, have tended to avoid the role of "a hired gun selling his connections," said Charles Tiefer, a former deputy general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and author "Veering Right, How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes."

"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," said Tiefer, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore.

Attempts to obtain comment from Ashcroft’s firm were unsuccessful, but in the past, a senior company official has defended the business as proper.

The changes in government operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks opened up numerous new commercial alliances between the private sector and the government. Before the attacks, "there hadn’t really been the commercial opportunities in the justice department. There hadn’t been a lot of call for lobbying," said Elizabeth Garrett, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a member of President George W. Bush’s Advisory Panel on Tax Reform.

Since the attacks, however, the justice department has become a key clearinghouse for huge homeland security-related contracts. "That’s big bucks," Garrett said.

During a frequently contentious four years as attorney general, Ashcroft championed a series of measures, including the USA Patriot Act, which gave police and intelligence authorities greater latitude to conduct secret surveillance and gather information on people even if they were not alleged to be terrorists.

Now, Ashcroft could sign up to advocate for interests "who are arguably making it possible for the government to infringe on our privacy," Garrett said. "That will give people more pause."

And the totals that Ashcroft has reported so far represent in some cases only initial retainers or billings.

In year-end filings, Ashcroft’s firm, The Ashcroft Group LLC, reported collecting $269,000, including $220,000 from Oracle Corp., which won justice department approval of a multibillion acquisition less than a month after hiring Ashcroft in October.

One of the world’s biggest software companies, Oracle makes large databases, including some used by intelligence services, and plans to use Ashcroft as a consultant for business opportunities on homeland security issues, a company spokesman said.

As attorney general, Ashcroft sued Oracle in 2004 to try to block an earlier acquisition by the company.

Ashcroft’s clients also include ChoicePoint, a data broker that sells credit reports and other personal information to the FBI and other federal agencies, and LTU Technologies Inc., a Washington and Paris-based maker of software for analyzing large batches of video and other visual images.

The Ashcroft Group reported payments of $15,000 from ChoicePoint, and $20,000 from Israel Aircraft Industries.

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