- January 17 - Nick Nyhart, Executive Director of Public Campaign, sent a letter rtoday to Senator Patrick Leahy requesting that the Senate Judiciary Committee investigate Senator John Ashcrofts commitment to enforcing federal campaign finance laws. Mr Nyhart also asked that the committee examine the conflicts of interest Senator Ashcroft would face as the head of an agency taking actions affecting interest groups from which he has been a major recipient of campaign donations. Mr. Nyhart cited in his letter allegations of Senator Ashcrofts violation of campaign laws, his objections to campaign finance reform legislation and his history as a prodigious fundraiser from lobbying interests.
There are several serious questions that must be answered by Senator Ashcroft during his confirmation hearing, said Nyhart. Did he or did he not violate the law during his past campaigns? Can he as the Attorney General enforce campaign laws that he is adamantly, and publicly, against? How can the American people be confident that his decisions on corporations that have issues pending with the Department of Justice will not be affected by the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he has received from them?
The Senate must not hastily confirm Senator Ashcroft without fully investigating the allegations of these illegal practices, his past responsiveness to campaign contributors and his willingness to enforce campaign finance laws, continued Nyhart. As a Senator, Ashcroft has never been shy in accepting large contributions from special interest groups and aggressively championing their causes. Will these same practices now be instituted at the Department of Justice?
Public Campaign is a non-profit, non-partisan organization working on behalf of comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Text of Letter:
January 16, 2001
The Honorable Patrick Leahy
Senate Committee on the Judiciary
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Leahy:
I am writing out of concern regarding Senator John Ashcroft’s commitment to the enforcement of our country’s campaign finance laws. His record of possibly violating, and certainly evading, campaign laws, apparently demonstrates a disturbing disregard for their importance to our democracy. Where Senator Ashcroft has not been personally implicated, closely associated staff have. His record as an elected official has also been marked by steadfast opposition to strengthening campaign finance laws. Furthermore, he has a track record of prodigious fundraising from powerful interests with important matters pending before the Justice Department. This record requires a rigorous investigation by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. A new Attorney General’s record should give the public confidence that he or she will be fair and unbiased in the enforcement of all our nation’s laws.
Yesterday’s Washington Post article on Senator Ashcroft and the research of the National Voting Rights Institute raise serious questions about his conduct while serving as Missouri attorney general. Thomas A. Deuschle, Mr. Ashcroft’s government-paid administrative assistant in the attorney general’s office, stated in a 1983 sworn deposition that, during working hours, he engaged in fundraising and other political activities in support of Mr. Ashcroft’s bid for governor. Furthermore, the Missouri State Republican Committee sent fundraising letters, bearing Mr. Ashcroft’s signature, on Missouri attorney general letterhead. (Deposition of Thomas A. Deuschle, April 13, 1983, in Inland Oil and Transport Co. v. John Ashcroft, Case No. 82-4336-CV-C5 (W.D. Mo.)).
This conduct follows that suggested in a 34-page plan, identified by the Post as prepared for Mr. Ashcroft’s gubernatorial campaign, that called for the use of state employees and facilities to promote his candidacy. When deposed in the same case as Mr. Deuschle, Mr. Ashcroft, on the advice of his attorney, declined to answer questions on the matter. To this day, Mr. Ashcroft has never undergone extensive questioning to ascertain his role and knowledge in the illegal activities that were going on in his office.
In any government office, the conduct of illegal political activities by government employees would, of course, be very troubling. But the fact that under Mr. Ashcroft’s leadership as a state attorney general, illegal activities were taking place in his offices, on his behalf, is a grave concern. There should be no greater sensitivity to the requirements of the law than in the offices of the highest law enforcement officer of a state, or the nation. Whether Mr. Ashcroft knew of the violations, or not, the allegations raise serious questions of his leadership in general. Specifically, what tone did he set as attorney general, in his own office, with regard to adherence to, and respect for, campaign finance laws? This, and the matter of Mr. Ashcroft’s potential personal complicity, are matters that require further investigation.
Another cause for concern is Senator Ashcroft’s position on campaign finance reform legislation. I do not suggest that Senator Ashcroft’s votes on specific campaign finance reform measures disqualify him from being confirmed as Attorney General. It is the legal grounds on which he has opposed such legislation that raises questions. In particular, Senator Ashcroft has opposed the McCain-Feingold bill on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. This raises the question of how Mr. Ashcroft would reconcile his sworn duty to uphold the Constitution, his view that McCain-Feingold violates the Constitution, and his potential obligation to enforce and defend the provisions of the bill should it become law? More generally, would he, as Attorney General, vigorously enforce other campaign finance laws that he has opposed as a legislator-the disclosure requirements for “527” political committees, for example.
Senator Ashcroft’s history of prodigious political fundraising also raises important questions. As a candidate for political office over many years, Senator Ashcroft has collected millions of dollars in political contributions. These have created a long list of relationships and, undoubtedly, at least, debts of gratitude. The Senator is near the top of the list of recipients in the Senate of more than 40 industries. For example, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), the senator ranks fourth in the Senate for contributions from the oil and gas industry, second in the Senate for contributions from the auto industry, and second in the Senate for contributions from air transport companies. Many of these industries will, undoubtedly, have important matters pending before the Justice Department during the next Attorney General’s time in office.
An appearance of impropriety would only be re-enforced by Senator Ashcroft’s record of working aggressively for the interest groups that have been his major contributors. For example, he cosponsored several bills to delay stronger fuel efficiency standards, legislation championed by the automotive industry. He was one of nine senators co-sponsoring Senate Bill 1172, which would extend patent rights on eight drugs, including Claritin-the leading prescription drug of Schering-Plough, a pharmaceutical giant. The Ashcroft Victory Committee subsequently received a $50,000 contribution from Schering-Plough, according to CRP.
Given this track record, we are concerned that as Attorney General, John Ashcroft’s many important decisions would be made under a cloud of favoritism. For example:
- The Justice Department has been asked to approve a merger between American Airlines and TWA, which consumer groups warn would raise airline ticket prices for consumers. Last May, American Airlines contributed $5,000 in soft money to the Ashcroft Victory Committee, a joint fundraising committee of Ashcroft's Senate campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Ashcroft's campaign also got $4,000 from the airline's Political Action Committee (PAC).
- As Attorney General, Ashcroft would be responsible for enforcing federal gun control laws. The senator was the beneficiary of nearly $300,000 in spending by the National Rifle Association to back his Senate candidacy, according to Public Citizen. This included the single largest contribution by the NRA to any federal candidate during the 1999-2000 election cycle-a $25,000 soft-money contribution to the Ashcroft Victory Committee.
- Several Ashcroft committees have collected more than $18,000 from Microsoft, its PACs and executives. The Justice Department antitrust case against Microsoft is currently being appealed.
We are deeply concerned that President-elect Bush is nominating someone for whom so many actions will raise questions of propriety. Law enforcement, more than any other area of government, must be above reproach and immune from charges of favoritism. Most recent federal Attorney Generals have not been politicians. And no Attorney General in recent history has taken office with a history of campaign fundraising approaching Senator Ashcroft’s. This issue warrants investigation and careful consideration by the Committee.
Lastly, Senator Ashcroft has been an unrepentant user of the soft-money loopholes in the current law. Arguably, his activities in setting up the American Values PAC, the Spirit of America PAC and the Ashcroft Victory PAC have, in fact, violated the law. Even if legal, or more probably, unenforced and commonplace, they show a willingness to tolerate the current state of lax campaign finance law enforcement. If, upon further inquiry, this is Senator Ashcroft’s position, it is not a quality we should seek in a new Attorney General.
I hope that you and the Committee will aggressively investigate these concerns. A better understanding of the events surrounding Mr. Ashcroft’s 1984 campaign for governor while he was Missouri’s attorney general is long overdue, and critical at this juncture. He must explain how, as United States Attorney General, he would handle matters pertaining to generous donors to his past campaigns. Would he recuse himself? Would he vigorously enforce our current campaign laws and others passed by Congress even if he personally does not support them and they violate his personal interpretation of the Constitution?
These are questions fairly raised by Senator Ashcroft’s record that bear directly on his qualifications for the office of Attorney General of the United States. With more money in elections than ever, and candidates, interest groups and political committees pushing the bounds of the campaign finance law farther than ever, it has never been more critical that an Attorney General be committed to their enforcement. The experience of the soon-departing Attorney General is all the evidence one needs to show that these issues are important and politically charged-all the more reason that her successor should be someone who instills public confidence in his or her impartiality and dedication to the rule of law.