No Comment — January 11, 2008, 3:38 pm

Ashcroft’s Sweet Deal

Three times in the last year I have sat together with lawyers and investigators looking into government contract corruption allegations—the first was at a House Judiciary Committee hearing looking into qui tam litigation, the other two times at academic conferences looking into contractor issues. On each occasion, the attitudes and conduct of the Department of Justice quickly emerged as a major topic of discussion. “Are they really interested in ferreting out and prosecuting contract crimes?,” one participant asked. “It looks more like they’re trying hard to cover them up.” That certainly reflects the experience of the qui tam litigation, privately launched civil litigation which the Justice Department fails to pick up or deal with in a supportive way.

Does it go too far to say the Justice Department is putting its influence on the side of the corrupt contractor? Maybe. The Justice Department’s concern clearly is not in dealing with contract corruption. . . unless of course the contract was cut by a Democratic administration somewhere, and a contract corruption case can be used to influence an election campaign. Conversely, when the contract was written by the Bush Administration, the instincts of the Bush Justice Department are to look the other way. That’s painfully close to a cover-up. And it certainly is not a robust interest in law enforcement. We’re looking at another manifestation of an intensely politicized Justice Department.

But will Michael Mukasey break this mold? At least he seems to be concerned about getting his own house in order.

The New York Times now brings us a report of some truly eyebrow-raising dealings.

When the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey needed to find an outside lawyer to monitor a large corporation willing to settle criminal charges out of court last fall, he turned to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, his onetime boss. With no public notice and no bidding, the company awarded Mr. Ashcroft an 18-month contract worth $28 million to $52 million. That contract, which Justice Department officials in Washington learned about only several weeks ago, has prompted an internal inquiry into the department’s procedures for selecting outside monitors to police settlements with large companies.

The contract between Mr. Ashcroft’s consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group, and Zimmer Holdings, a medical supply company in Indiana, has also drawn the attention of Congressional investigators. The New Jersey prosecutor, United States Attorney Christopher J. Christie, directed similar monitoring contracts last year to two other former Justice Department colleagues from the Bush administration, as well as to a former Republican state attorney general in New Jersey.

Officials said that while there had been no accusations of wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Christie or Mr. Ashcroft, aides to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey were concerned about the appearance of favoritism. Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge who was sworn in as attorney general in November, has vowed to remove political considerations from decision-making at the department in the wake of a series of scandals under his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales. Mr. Ashcroft was awarded the contract last fall at the direction of Mr. Christie as part of his office’s settlement of criminal accusations against Zimmer Holdings and four smaller firms accused of paying kickbacks to doctors. A spokesman for Mr. Ashcroft said that the Ashcroft Group had not lobbied for the contract but was pleased by the referral.

One pattern that has clearly emerged from the contract dealings of the Bush Administration: there is great enthusiasm for privatizing functions and issuing large-scale contracts to private firms without a competitive process; the awardees in these procedures tend to be Republican party stalwarts with a long track record of partisan engagement in the trenches, and a habit of making large contributions in time and treasure to support the Republican Party. We got a very clear glimpse of this in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA, once a highly-regarded agency, had been turned into little more than a corruption mill for Republican Party hacks.

Note that all of this occurred under the watchful and approving gaze of New Jersey’s Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security. In a prior manifestation as head of the Criminal Division, Chertoff oversaw widespread political prosecutions. He installed his protégé Noel Hillman, who proudly listed partisan politics among his “interests” on his official biography, in the Public Integrity Section at Justice. Chertoff was previously also U.S. Attorney in New Jersey and has long been considered one of the towering figures in New Jersey Republican politics.

The target of this probe is the current U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, who has also been the subject of broad suspicions of political dealings. He has a penchant for investigating Democrats up for election just as the campaign season heats up, and his investigations amazingly seem to work their way immediately into the large-circulation New Jersey newspapers. Can it come as a surprise to anyone that he would override normal contract procedures and deliver a nice reward to his former boss, John Ashcroft?

Sounds like a matter for the Public Integrity Section, as well as the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General. Of course, they’ve got quite a bit on the plate right now. And we forget. They don’t investigate Republicans.

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