Ashcroft Pizza Party Raises Ethics Eyebrows
Updated: 2/27/07, 7:25 p.m.
A pizza luncheon to be hosted this Wednesday by former Attorney General turned consultant John Ashcroft for some of his old political appointees has raised eyebrows in the Justice Department's ethics office, U.S. News has learned. The ethics office, which provides Justice employees with guidance on a wide range of ethics questions, has not prohibited invitees from attending the lunch.
However, it has "advised invitees to consider the appearance of attending such an event," Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told U.S. News. But Juleanna Glover Weiss, an adviser and spokesperson for his consulting firm, told U.S. News that "General Ashcroft has abided by the letter and spirit of all post government service ethics restrictions." Wednesday's lunch, Weiss said, "is just a small social gathering."
Executive branch employees must comply with stringent standards of ethical conduct pertaining to accepting gifts or items of monetary value from anyone wanting to do official business with their agency, including their old colleagues and bosses. The ethics office has told political appointees at Justice that if they attend the Ashcroft pizza luncheon, it would "count toward the $20/occasion and $50/year limits."
Typically, former government officials must abide by a one-year "cooling off" period before lobbying or soliciting business from their former agency. But there are longer restrictions when it comes to contacting old colleagues on specific matters. The department did not elaborate on what aspect of Ashcroft's lunch invitation gave the ethics office pause.
By law, lobbyists have to disclose which companies and trade groups they represent before Congress and the executive branch. Among the Ashcroft Group's roster of clients is Mittal Steel Co. The Chicago-based Dutch global steel hired the Ashcroft Group last June. The firm registered to lobby on behalf of Mittal in July, well within the 45-day time limit.
A month later, the department's antitrust division filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to block Mittal's merger with another steel giant, Arcelor, which long had provided what antitrust officials described as "significant competitive constraint," to Mittal.
Simultaneously, the department also filed a proposed consent decree that it said would resolve the "competitive harm" stemming from the proposed $33 billion merger. According to U.S. Senate lobbying records, the Ashcroft Group reported earnings from Mittal Steel of $360,000 between January and June 2006. However, since Ashcroft was only hired in June, that $360,000 represented a one-time advance payment for work to be done in 2006. The Ashcroft Group reported virtually no earnings from Mittal for the rest of the year. The firm continues to represent Mittal, said Glover Weiss.
Last Tuesday, the Justice Department, as part of that court-approved consent decree, ordered Mittal to sell its steel mill at Sparrows Point, near Baltimore.
"With the divestiture of Sparrows Point," said Thomas O. Barnett, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's antitrust division, "competition in the market for tin mill products in the eastern United States will be preserved."
Tin mill products are tin- or chrome-coated rolled steel sheets, used to make food cans, paint cans, aerosols, and other products.