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.
The registered lobbyists for Mittal Steel listed in the senate records, are Glover Weiss, and David Ayres. The lobbying registration records requires covered executive or legislative branch officials to list their prior positions "within two years of first acting as a lobbyist for the client." Ayres listed his prior position as former chief of staff to Ashcroft.
It's unclear whether the pizza party, coming as it does so close to the Justice Department's Mittal Steel decision, might have contributed to the ethics official's heartburn.
Ashcroft was the first top official to step down after President George Bush won a second term. He submitted his letter of resignation in November 2004 and left in February 2005. At his last Justice Department annual Christmas party, Ashcroft told reporters that he was not seeking any outside employment until he had completely left the department, in order to protect the department's institutional interests and avoid even the faintest appearance of any conflicts resulting from a job search.
Ashcroft subsequently created his own consulting firm, the Ashcroft Group, which quickly became a profitable venture. The firm specializes in strategic consulting, including with respect to homeland security, best business practices, litigation strategy, and data security. On the group's website, Aschroft parlays his leadership in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to pitch for homeland security business.
"This deep experience in fighting the war on terror," the website says, "has given the Ashcroft Group LLC a strategic advantage in evaluating and navigating the homeland security and law enforcement marketplace." Ashcroft's consulting firm also advises businesses on investment strategies in the homeland security arena, as well as crisis management and dealing with government investigations, high-stakes litigation, and financial distress or bankruptcy.