House Panel Questions Ashcroft on No-Bid Contract
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft has moved on to private law practice. And his dealings with the government raised questions about a conflict of interest. Questions he sharply denies. Ashcroft got called before Congress yesterday to discuss a practice that has grown during the Bush administration. If a company is facing prosecution the trial may be deferred. In exchange, the company promises to improve its behavior and an independent monitor checks on how the company is doing.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's the alleged conflict. The independent monitor gets paid. Ashcroft's firm was hired as a monitor for up to $52 million. NPR's Nina Totenberg is working to unravel what's happening.
NINA TOTENBERG: Until hours before yesterday's hearings, there were no rules and no checks on who and how monitors are appointed. So secretive are these arrangements that the Justice Department has not yet provided a list of monitors requested by the House and Senate judiciary committees two months ago.
But on the eve of yesterday's House hearing, the department did establish some generic rules, including a provision that such contracts must be approved by the deputy attorney general. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft's contract is not covered by the new rule. It was awarded last year by the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Christopher Christie, who used to work for Ashcroft in the Justice Department.
The contract, which was not put up for bid and was not disclosed at the time it was awarded, is to monitor Zimmer Corporation's compliance with an agreement it negotiated with Prosecutor Christie rather than face indictment on charges related to a kickback scheme involving hip and knee joint replacements.
The atmospherics at yesterday's hearings were testy, to say the least, starting with the opening statement by subcommittee chair Linda Sanchez.
Representative LINDA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): I was troubled to learn of what appeared to a backroom sweetheart deal where New Jersey U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie appointed John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, to serve as an independent corporate monitor and collect fees between $28 and $52 million.
TOTENBERG: Former Attorney General Ashcroft said he did not seek the contract and understood that Prosecutor Christie first sought approval for his appoint from Zimmer Corporation. There was no conflict of interest, he said, because the corporation, not the government, pays his fees.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft (Paid to monitor corporations): Not a single cent of tax dollars is spent for monitors.
Representative SANCHEZ: I understand that. That's…
Former Attorney General ASHCROFT: This - this - this…
Representative SANCHEZ: …not the question that I'm asking, though. I'm just trying to get through the…
Former Attorney General ASHCROFT: …this hearing costs far more in tax dollars than my monitorship will cost in tax dollars.
TOTENBERG: What's more, said Ashcroft, the ability to hire individuals who the skills to be public monitors should not be impeded by the fact that someone has previously held public office.
When members observed that Ashcroft's contract was far more lucrative than the monitor's contracts for four other joint and knee manufacturers, Ashcroft said that the Zimmer case was more complicated and that he'd had to hire a staff of 30, including former Justice Department officials and FBI agents to do the job.
Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson observed that, unlike the other monitors who provided hundreds of pages of itemized bills to the company, Ashcroft's firm only provided a single page summary.
Representative HANK JOHNSON (Democrat, Georgia): Why don't you provide Zimmer with a detailed accounting explaining the services provided and the monitoring expenses?
Former Attorney General ASHCROFT: Well, we believe that the quality of the services is the important point and that we have agreed and provided information about our fees in advance.
TOTENBERG: And others, like Democrat Bill Delahunt, objected to the practice of seeking corporate approval for the choice of an outside monitor.
Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): I was shocked, to be perfectly candid, that this company Zimmer was consulted about whether you were acceptable.
TOTENBERG: Several Democrats and some experts have suggested that a judge approve the appointment of deferred prosecution monitors. But Ashcroft and committee Republicans strongly objected to that idea.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.