A health care expert who applied for a top Cabinet post in Missouri's government contends then-Gov. John D. Ashcroft questioned him about his sexual orientation during a job interview, posing the query in a way that indicated he would not be hired if he were gay.
Such a question -- which Attorney General-designate Ashcroft said he "cannot imagine" asking -- would not violate Missouri law, which does not prohibit discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.
But it would appear to contradict testimony Ashcroft offered to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week when he told senators that "sexual orientation has never been something that I've used in hiring in any of the jobs, in any of the offices, I've held. It will not be a consideration in hiring at the Department of Justice."
Paul Offner, a Democrat and health care policy expert who applied in 1985 to be head of Missouri's Department of Social Services, said he was "stunned" by the query, which he said came with no introduction at the start of his interview. "If his position is that this has never been an issue with him, then why did he say it?" Offner asked in an interview. "It is hard to believe it wasn't a [job] qualification."
The issue of Ashcroft's views on gays arose last week when he faced strong criticism from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who contended he voted against James Hormel's appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is openly gay. The senators also questioned Ashcroft, during four days of committee hearings and in some of the hundreds of written follow-up queries they sent him, about his willingness to uphold civil rights laws -- including those protecting gays -- if he is confirmed as the nation's top law enforcement officer.
Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for Ashcroft, said yesterday that "the senator does not recall this meeting and cannot imagine starting a meeting with this question. He made it clear to the committee when they asked about this issue that sexual orientation has never been something that he has used in hiring in any of the offices he has held, and it will not be a consideration at the Department of Justice."
Tucker said gays worked for Ashcroft during his eight years as governor.
Rich McClure, Ashcroft's chief of staff from late 1985 until late 1992, said he "never heard Senator Ashcroft or any of his staff or legal counsel ask that kind of question" during job interviews.
Offner did not get the job. He went on to serve as senior health care adviser to the Senate Finance Committee and then tried to help the District of Columbia reform its health care reimbursement system before joining the faculty at Georgetown University.
Offner said that as the 1985 meeting in Jefferson City, Mo., began, Ashcroft, without any introduction, looked directly at Offner, who was single at the time, and posed the question: "Mr. Offner, do you have the same sexual preference as most men?"
"Yes," Offner said he replied.
"Have you ever used an illegal controlled substance?" Ashcroft asked next.
"I have not," Offner said.
Several friends and colleagues said Offner quickly told them of the exchange with Ashcroft.
"I remember it very well," said Kathy Sykes, a staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency and friend of Offner. "He said it was the most unusual interview because he was specifically asked about his sexual orientation. I was shocked, and Paul was shocked. It just stands out. These are not normally questions you ask in determining qualifications for jobs."
Offner said the congressional controversy surrounding Ashcroft's stances on civil rights and gay issues prompted him to speak out about his encounter with the former governor. He has also told Judiciary Committee staffers about the interview.
Current law does not prohibit the federal government from discrimination in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. During the last session of Congress, Ashcroft voted against changing that law. But an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton last year prohibits the federal government from discriminating against gays in employment.
Offner, 58, who is now married, said Ashcroft crossed the line with his direct question about sexual orientation. He said he also found it odd that Ashcroft began the interview by asking about it.
"It was just, like, zap," and he asked, Offner recalled.
According to Offner, Ashcroft told him after reviewing his file that despite his outstanding credentials, Ashcroft could not hire him, implying that the reason was political. "He said that his people would not understand," Offner recalled.
A vote on Ashcroft's confirmation was postponed yesterday for a week at the request of Democrats, who said they have not received Ashcroft's answers to more than 360 written questions as well as other material they have requested.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), yesterday said she will vote against Ashcroft's confirmation, becoming the seventh Democrat to do so. Among her reservations about Ashcroft, she said, is the way he deals with gay people. Feinstein also said Ashcroft was misleading in his congressional testimony last week about why he opposed Hormel's nomination.
Feinstein noted that Ashcroft previously criticized Hormel for being "a leader" in "promoting" a gay lifestyle.
"Yet the new John Ashcroft promises never to discriminate against gays or lesbians for employment and said the reason for voting against Ambassador Hormel was because he knew him personally. Mr. Hormel called me to say that not only does he not know Mr. Ashcroft, but that the senator had refused to meet with him prior to confirmation."
Ashcroft testified last week that he evaluated Hormel based on "the totality of his record" and strongly urged legislators to vote against him because it appeared he would not represent U.S. interests abroad well. In the past, however, he has said he opposed Hormel's nomination because of Hormel's openly gay lifestyle.
In a letter last week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Hormel said Ashcroft blatantly misrepresented the nature of their relationship and contended Ashcroft voted against him because he is gay. Hormel said Ashcroft reached conclusions about what sort of ambassador he would be without meeting him, without attending Senate Judiciary Committee meetings and without submitting any written questions.
"I find it personally offensive that Mr. Ashcroft, under oath and in response to your direct questions, would choose to misstate the nature of our relationship, insinuate objective grounds for voting against me and deny that his personal viewpoint about my sexual orientation played any role in his actions," Hormel wrote in another letter, to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), last week.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) challenged Ashcroft over the issue of enforcing sexual non-discrimination policies during the Senate hearings.
"I know that you have strongly held views on gays and homosexuality," Feingold told Ashcroft last week. "You and I have had discussions about this and . . . you said, 'I believe the Bible calls it a sin, and that's what defines it for me.' "
Ashcroft replied, "As attorney general, I will not make sexual orientation a matter to be considered in hiring or firing."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company