Former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft
agreed last night to appear at a House hearing to discuss his lucrative
arrangement overseeing a medical equipment company, averting a showdown
with committee members who had planned to meet today to authorize a
The move marks an about-face for Ashcroft, who told lawmakers
earlier this month that "discussing the details of my legal
responsibilities, as requested, in this pending criminal case and
related ongoing criminal investigation would violate my ethical
Ashcroft, who left public service three years ago to start a private
consulting firm, won the contract under a settlement the company
reached with federal prosecutors in New Jersey.
Under a recent government policy, companies facing criminal
investigation can accept such outside supervision to avoid indictment.
Ashcroft's consulting firm stands to collect between $28 million and $52 million over 18 months for reviewing the operations of Zimmer Holdings, an Indiana
company that makes replacement hips and knees. Zimmer last year settled
government charges over kickbacks it allegedly provided doctors in
exchange for using its products.
The deal touched off criticism in New Jersey political circles and on Capitol Hill,
where leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees directed
congressional investigators to examine the increasingly popular
arrangements, known as corporate monitorships. Legal scholars warn they
may become instruments of political patronage that involve little if
any judicial oversight.
Rep. Linda Sanchez
(D-Calif.), who leads the House subcommittee on administrative law, had
been preparing to hold a vote today to authorize a subpoena for
Ashcroft. Sanchez's chief of staff, Michael Torra, had said he was
confident the panel had enough votes to move ahead.
But yesterday evening, representatives for Ashcroft informed the
committee that he would answer questions about his dealings with
"Mr. Ashcroft has agreed to testify voluntarily in the coming weeks
on the topic of deferred prosecution agreements," Torra said. A hearing
date has not been set.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Ashcroft, did not return calls or e-mail messages.
In a Feb. 15 letter obtained yesterday by The Washington Post,
Ashcroft wrote that he hoped members of Congress would respect his
qualifications to serve as a corporate monitor "despite our past policy
differences and my political affiliation." Ashcroft, a Republican from Missouri, was President Bush's first attorney general. Before that, he had served as governor of Missouri, state auditor and in the U.S. Senate, where he was a longstanding member of the Judiciary Committee.
Separately, the Senate Special Committee on Aging
is scheduled Wednesday to hold an oversight hearing into Zimmer and
four other medical equipment companies that settled kickback
allegations with New Jersey prosecutors last year.
Zimmer paid the Ashcroft Group $7.5 million between last September
and January, according to information provided to the Senate Special
Committee on Aging. Ashcroft and about a half-dozen senior staff
members of his firm are covered under a flat $750,000 monthly payment
from Zimmer. Other top lawyers affiliated with Ashcroft's consulting
business are billing as much as $895 per hour under the agreement,
while administrative support staff members are billing $50 to $150 per
hour, Senate aides said.
Bills submitted by monitors for the other four companies involved in
the settlement are less than half of what the Ashcroft group has
charged, averaging a total of about $2 million each, the aides said.
Zimmer is by far the largest company in the investigation, and it paid
most of the financial penalties to the government under the settlement.
The Justice Department
is considering whether to issue "guidance or best practices" to
prosecutors around the country and is examining how monitors are
selected, an agency spokesman said.