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Public Interest Groups Call for Special Prosecutor to Launch Criminal Investigation of Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Political Committees in Campaign Finance Case

Jan. 15, 2004

Public Interest Groups Call for Special Prosecutor to Launch Criminal Investigation of Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Political Committees in Campaign Finance Case

Letter to Justice Department Includes Charges of Potential Tax Evasion by Ashcroft


WASHINGTON, D.C. – A coalition of public interest organizations sent a letter today to the U.S. Department of Justice calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate potential criminal actions involving U. S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, his 2000 Senate campaign committee and his leadership PAC. The letter, based on newly released documents from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), outlines evidence that Ashcroft knowingly accepted, during his 2000 Senate re-election campaign, a fundraising mailing list, developed at a cost of $1.7 million, constituting an illegal, excessive contribution of at least $255,000, in direct violation of federal campaign finance law. The letter also charges that Mr. Ashcroft and his political committees engaged in a criminal conspiracy to cover up the illegal contribution.

According to FEC documents, Mr. Ashcroft claims that he – and not his leadership PAC – owns the fundraising list. The public interest groups’ letter argues that if Mr. Ashcroft’s claims are true, then Mr. Ashcroft has violated federal law by failing to disclose the fundraising list as an asset on his U.S. Senate financial disclosure forms and that there is probable cause to suspect that Mr. Ashcroft may have engaged in tax evasion, by failing to report income earned from the asset on his income tax filings before the Internal Revenue Service.

“There can be no doubt that the appointment of an outside special counsel is required in this case to fully investigate potential criminal actions implicating the United States Attorney General himself,” the public interest groups state in their letter. “Failure to appoint an outside special counsel in this case would send the dangerous message to the American people that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer is above the law.”

The letter, issued to Deputy Attorney General James Comey, is signed by John C. Bonifaz, executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute; Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; Nick Nyhart, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund; Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen; and Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project.

On Dec. 11, 2003, the FEC issued a $37,000 fine to Mr. Ashcroft’s 2000 campaign committee for the U.S. Senate and his political action committee, the Spirit of America PAC, for violations of federal campaign finance law during the 2000 election. The FEC’s action came in the midst of a federal lawsuit brought by a coalition of campaign reform groups and Missouri voters that accused the FEC of excessive delay in investigating the violations. The FEC’s “conciliation agreement” with the Ashcroft committees revealed that Mr. Ashcroft was directly involved in the circumstances leading to the violations.

The allegations in the underlying case center on the disclosure, first reported on Feb. 1, 2001, by The Washington Post, were that the Spirit of America PAC had contributed a fundraising list of 100,000 donors to Ashcroft’s 2000 Senate campaign in Missouri. Federal campaign finance law prohibits political action committees from making campaign contributions to federal candidates that exceed the value of $10,000 in an election cycle (primary and general election included). The article appeared on the day the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Mr. Ashcroft to be United States Attorney General.

In its conciliation agreement with Mr. Ashcroft’s political committees, the FEC determined that Ashcroft 2000 had improperly received rental income from the fundraising list totaling more than $110,000, constituting “an excessive contribution from the PAC to Ashcroft 2000” in violation of federal campaign finance law. The FEC, however, refused to find that the donation of the list itself constituted an excessive contribution, apparently accepting the contention that Ashcroft, and not his PAC, owned the list as an “exchange for the use of his name and likeness” in creating the list. Federal candidates may make unlimited donations to their campaigns.

The public interest groups’ letter points out that if Mr. Ashcroft does, in fact, own the fundraising list, then he would have had to report it as an asset in financial disclosure reports as a U.S. senator and as the U.S. attorney general, and he would have had to pay taxes to the IRS on income earned from the fundraising list. FEC documents reveal that he did not disclose the list as an asset on his Senate financial disclosure statements in 1998 and 1999, and the groups say there is probable cause to suspect that he similarly has not disclosed the asset as an executive branch official. They further say that there is probable cause to suspect that Mr. Ashcroft has not paid taxes on income earned from the list, giving rise to potential tax evasion charges.

The issuance of today’s letter and the FEC’s recent action come as the agency fights to avoid discovery in the related federal court case. On July 22, 2003, Federal Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issued a ruling denying the FEC’s motion to dismiss the case and ordering the agency to provide the plaintiffs with crucial information on the agency’s handling of the matter. The plaintiffs, represented by the National Voting Rights Institute and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Jenner & Block, have filed before Judge Sullivan a motion to compel the FEC to turn over documents in its investigation of the charges against the Ashcroft committees. Judge Sullivan has scheduled oral argument for Jan. 21, 2004, on that motion, along with the FEC’s renewed motion to dismiss the case.

A copy of the public interest groups’ joint letter to the Department of Justice can be found at www.nvri.org.