Poor John Ashcroft.
Here's a man who has worked so hard to become a national household word -- the story, if you will -- as President George W. Bush's blunt and outspoken lightning rod of an attorney general. He's easily the most controversial figure in the Bush administration, and that has him positioned as a top GOP presidential candidate down the line (or even as vice presidential timber, should Dick Cheney not run in 2004).
But for all that, one of the juiciest stories of the Dubya era has broken -- complete with perfectly respectable Ashcroft and Justice Department angles -- and our man in the eye of the storm can't buy a lousy sound bite. It stinks.
I speak, of course, of the Enron scandal. Here we have the largest bankruptcy in American history, complete with top Bush contributors receiving hundreds of millions while stockholders and employees get toasted in the process, punctuated by Democratic calls for Whitewater-style probes, and Ashcroft is barely mentioned in passing, and only in his administrative role at Justice at that.
Give John Ashcroft his due, I say. Give him some camera time, for crying out loud.
After all, Ashcroft did receive $50,000 in campaign contributions from Enron CEO Kenneth Lay and Enron just over a year ago for his unsuccessful U.S. Senate race here in Missouri. That's no mean feat, seeing as how our state doesn't exactly abound in oil wells.
To put this sum in perspective, consider that at $50,000 the Lay/Enron combo was among the top five contributors to the Ashcroft Victory Committee and among the top two from out of state, according to campaign-finance numbers reported by the Center for Responsive Politics. Conversely, Ashcroft's committee was by far the top recipient (other than the Republican National Committee) of a single donation from Lay.
What's more, in 1998, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination, Ashcroft went right into the heart of hostile Bush country and had a major fundraiser, hosted by none other than Lay himself. At the time, Bush wasn't officially in the race.
Throw in the fact that Lay gave Ashcroft the maximum $1,000 gift for his first U.S. Senate run all the way back in 1994, and it's fair to say that Ashcroft has a decent personal history with the fellow Bush knows affectionately as "Kenny boy."
Doesn't Ashcroft deserve a little acknowledgment for running with the big dogs in his own right and not merely as Bush's John Mitchell? Doesn't the attorney general at least deserve to be seen as a victim of a liberal media conspiracy campaign to smear his good name by pointing out his longtime alliance with the ethically challenged Lay?
By the way, where is the liberal media on this story?
Kenneth Lay isn't some guy off the street. This is Bush's top fundraiser, a man with enough clout to have had private meetings with Cheney last spring on energy policy.
Lay presided over the rise of Enron when it was revered as the model success story for the energy-deregulation policies championed by Bush, Ashcroft and others unaffected by Enron's political largesse.
As Enron executives exploited deregulation -- much as the savings-and-loan leaders did a decade earlier -- the company evolved as a high-living energy-company speculator, tossing corporate dollars around like a drunken sailor. It went from No. 7 on the Fortune 500 list of top companies to No. 1 on the all-time U.S. bankruptcy list.
What happened isn't clear to the untrained eye, but the box score is pretty easy for even a layperson (pun intended) to read: Enron stock plummeted from more than $90.56 in August 2000 to -- get this -- 63 cents just 15 months later.
Lay and other top executives had the good sense to cash out their holdings at a nice price, with the CEO reportedly hauling in $300 million during better times. He even had the audacity to attempt to pile on another $60 million in exchange for selling the company near the end (until an outcry by stockholders put an end to that), and he oversaw the payment of some $55 million in bonuses to 500 executives just one week before the company filed for bankruptcy in December.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) wants the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to probe whether U.S. government oversight agencies could have "done more" to prevent Enron's collapse, reports Bloomberg News.
"Lieberman said his committee would subpoena documents from officers and directors since 1999 and Enron's auditors to determine why Enron restated four years of earnings and led investors to believe the company's balance sheet was sound," it reported. "The committee will also probe why top officers sold Enron stock while employees were prevented from selling shares in their retirement plans as its price collapsed."
One needn't be a yapping liberal to suspect that something's amiss. Consider the words of no less a conservative icon than Fox's Bill O'Reilly, on a Dec. 6 "Unresolved Problem" segment: "Enron was lying. I think Kenneth Lay should be prosecuted criminally myself," O'Reilly said. "Ashcroft could, you know, start investigating him tomorrow. He should."
Is it respectful not to at least acknowledge Ashcroft's potential conflict here? Have even his fellow conservatives forgotten that Ashcroft was a U.S. senator selling "access," in his own right, to heavy hitters such as Lay?
Even Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), proclaiming, "I hope some of these people wind up in jail," acted as if Ashcroft had no history with Enron when she announced last month that she would ask Ashcroft himself to conduct a Justice Department probe.
I say that's not fair. Ashcroft deserves a lot more respect as a major Lay ally than to be passed off as just another administration figure who can be trusted to make fair and independent judgments about possible government action regarding Enron.
What does Ashcroft have to do for a little attention here -- get caught on video receiving bags of cash from Lay? Doesn't $50,000 in campaign contributions just over a year ago count for anything?
Don't write off our attorney general as if he were some Enron executive perk. He's a star here, not an extra.
John Ashcroft has earned a place in this scandal.