I'm feeling better for John Ashcroft.
When last visited by the Riverfront Times, our homegrown attorney general seemed unjustly frozen out of the Enron scandal. Ashcroft had received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from Enron and its CEO, Kenneth Lay, in his 2000 U.S. Senate race, yet he couldn't buy a lousy sound bite about his piece of the story.
It was Ashcroft's Justice Department investigating Enron, after all, so why wasn't anyone in the mainstream press noting the obvious conflict posed by these major contributions? "Give him some camera time, for crying out loud," I pleaded.
One day after our story appeared [Hartmann, "What About John?", Jan. 9.], Ashcroft recused himself from the Enron investigation. He didn't specifically cite us as the impetus for the decision, but the main thing was that he was getting some credit for being a regular-guy politician.
This is important. When you're a fellow who doesn't drink, smoke, swear or otherwise have fun this side of patriotic ditties, it's hard for everyday people to relate to you. On the other hand, if it becomes clear that Ashcroft can be as compromised as the next public official, at least he can take on some semblance of normalcy.
It's becoming clear.
Post-Enron, Ashcroft is finally getting recognition as someone willing to participate in that smarmy all-American game: politics as usual. Sure, Ashcroft remains holier than thou. But there's a growing recognition that his moral piety doesn't mean he acts like some goody-two-shoes when there are lucrative favors to be called in.
In the past, no one wanted to believe this. The RFT reported the case of Schering-Plough, which gave Ashcroft $50,000 for his Senate Victory Fund in 1999, after which he co-sponsored an attempt to get the company patent extensions for its drug Claritin that would have saved it -- and cost consumers -- a cool $9.64 billion [Hartmann, "John Ashcroft's Drug Money," June 7, 2000.]
No relationship, his aides said. The Democrats never uttered a peep, in no small part because of their own ethical embarrassment. U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), was right there with Ashcroft, doing the drug company's dirty work.
The Claritin matter was never mentioned during Ashcroft's torrid confirmation hearings. Somehow Ashcroft's choirboy image managed to negate his down-and-dirty capabilities.
Finally, however, people are starting to catch on.
In February, Democrats became emboldened enough to criticize Ashcroft for failing to recuse himself on the Microsoft case at Justice in light of the fact he had received $20,000 in campaign donations from the company in 2000.
No doubt the Democrats were hurling stones from the comfort of their own glass house, in campaign-finance terms. But at least they stopped giving Ashcroft a hall pass on the subject.
Now, two more eyebrow-raisers have come to light in the past two weeks, both involving long-standing Ashcroft contributors from St. Louis. A nice deal was cut by Justice (and the EPA) for Solutia -- Monsanto's spin-off -- over a PCB mess in Alabama. And another brother-in-law agreement was reached, but withdrawn under pressure, for the Adam's Mark hotel chain.
What Monsanto gave Ashcroft over his Senate years amounted to more than $50,000, according to the Post-Dispatch. What its spin-off got was a consent decree -- blasted by state officials as a "sweetheart deal" -- that could save the company millions.
Ashcroft had no involvement, Justice Department officials said.
What Adam's Mark gave Ashcroft was a total of $15,700 in contributions -- from CEO Fred Kummer, his family and his employees -- according to the Washington Post. What it was slated to get was early release from a costly consent decree stemming from a bodacious discrimination case involving black hotel guests in Florida.
Ashcroft had no involvement, Justice officials said.
See a pattern?
But, of course, Ashcroft had no involvement here.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo explained the phenomenon of the terminally uninvolved attorney general to the Post-Dispatch, citing the size of the department and its six litigating divisions.
"A lot of times, cases are going on in the divisions that the top people are not involved in," Corallo said. "It never gets to their level. So sometimes it's not even a matter for recusal, because it's a matter they wouldn't know about."
Right. Just like he didn't know about that aide's decision to cover the Spirit of Justice's disgustingly naked breast with a demure and television-friendly blue drape.
Funny thing. Even defenders of the current campaign-finance system acknowledge that companies give big bucks to politicians in exchange for "access."
Do you think they'd forget to use their "access" when a matter of critical importance to them was before an agency headed by one of the politicians they helped the most? Are these matters that Ashcroft "wouldn't know about?"
Funnier thing: The Post quoted former Attorney General Edwin Meese -- yes, freakin' Ed Meese -- saying, "In the case of John Ashcroft, of course, he's a man of such obvious integrity that I think there are probably fewer questions of him than of most political figures."
Wow. That's like Michael Jackson giving your babysitter a good reference.
It's this very line of nonsense -- the notion of Ashcroft the puritan, Ashcroft the uninvolved even when standing in a pool of slime -- that has kept our man in Washington from becoming known for what he really is:
Just another bought-and-paid-for politician.
But finally the word is getting out. As politicians go, Ashcroft is a regular guy.
Feel good for him.