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Ashcroft Funds Under Scrutiny

Money Raised for Fine, Legal Costs Related to Senate Campaign

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page A04

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft's 1998 leadership political action committee, Spirit of America, and his Senate reelection campaign committee, Ashcroft 2000, raised more than $100,000 last year in order to pay a fine and legal costs for violating campaign finance laws, according to Federal Election Commission records and Garrett Lott, treasurer of both committees.

The funds raised last year included individual contributions and income the leadership PAC derived from renting out a political mailing list, according to Lott and FEC records.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has avoided any direct involvement with his two fundraising committees' legal problems. (Bebeto Matthews -- AP)

The use of the mailing list rental income in the 2000 reelection campaign first got Ashcroft and his committees in trouble with the FEC three years ago. Last December, the two Ashcroft committees agreed to pay a $37,000 fine levied by the FEC, based on at least four violations of federal campaign laws.

The Spirit of America PAC in 1999 and 2000 earned $165,000 from renting its mailing list to outside groups and transferred $112,000 of that money to the Ashcroft 2000 campaign committee. Election laws, the FEC ruled, permitted the Ashcroft PAC to donate only $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election to his Senate campaign committee, which it already had done.

During the two-year FEC inquiry, Ashcroft committee lawyers described the then-senator as owner of the PAC mailing list, which would have exempted the fund transfers from any limitations. However, the FEC last year rejected that assertion because Ashcroft did not disclose his ownership or the rental income in his 1998 and 1999 Senate financial disclosures. He has also not listed the mailing list as an asset in his required filings as attorney general.

Ashcroft, who lost his reelection campaign before being tapped by President Bush as attorney general, has avoided any direct involvement with his fundraising committees' legal problems, even though he was the founder and major figure in both of them. To make their case, committee lawyers instead used documents he signed, including one that they said established his ownership of the mailing list, but the attorney general was never interviewed during the FEC inquiry.

Mark Corallo, Ashcroft's spokesman at the Justice Department, said recently that the attorney general's disclosure statement "is complete." To the question of who owns the mailing list, Corallo said: "I can't comment. I don't know. That is prior history. . . . Talk to campaign people."

Ashcroft's role and the ongoing operation of his two committees continue to be the focus of legal concern. Late last week, the Massachusetts-based National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI), which filed the original FEC complaint against Ashcroft and his committees, urged Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to investigate "potential civil and criminal violations of federal law" by the two committees and Ashcroft while he has been attorney general.

The FEC dealt only with civil violations of the election laws; only Justice can investigate possible criminal violations of those laws.

John Bonifaz, general counsel of the NVRI, said in an interview that he was disturbed that committees carrying the name of the attorney general or associated with him are being used to raise money to pay off campaign finance penalties and related legal costs.

"It is unseemly for the nation's chief law enforcement officer, whose committees are under investigation, to use those very committees to raise funds from campaign contributors as a means for defending against possible criminal charges and paying civil fines," Bonifaz said. "Ashcroft is very powerful, and people who get called are going to feel pressure to make such contributions."

He also noted that the expenses that Ashcroft's committees are asking contributors to pay "are their own creation."

"They violated the law and are using that same structure to defend against those violations," he added.

The new FEC reports show that in the last quarter of 2003, Ashcroft 2000, the four-year-old reelection committee, reported raising $74,598, half from donors of $200 or more. Lott, the committees' treasurer, said a mail solicitation, which raised the money, "was from me" because Ashcroft as attorney general "can have nothing to do with this."

Spirit of America raised $36,893 during 2003, the bulk from rental of the controversial mailing list. Lott said he would not discuss the ownership issue.

Central to the FEC inquiry was the fundraising mailing list developed beginning in 1998 by Ashcroft's Spirit of America at a cost of $1.7 million. During the FEC inquiry, Ashcroft committee lawyers used a "work product agreement" signed in 1998 by Ashcroft and an aide representing his PAC that said the list was to be the personal property of the then-senator in return for his allowing the PAC to use his name and image to raise money. The FEC disregarded that assertion, and ruled the leadership PAC owned the mailing list and the rental income was an illegal contribution.

NVRI, in its letter to the Justice inspector general, asserted that Ashcroft violated the law by failing to disclose the mailing list as an asset in his public financial disclosure statements as attorney general in 2001 and 2002. Or, if he did not own the list, he and his lawyers had conspired to defraud the FEC by making the claim that he owned it, the NVRI said.

Bonifaz was joined in his letter to the Justice Department inspector general by four other nonprofit groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Public Campaign Action Fund, Public Citizen and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. They decided to write Fine after receiving no response to a Jan. 15 letter sent to Deputy Attorney General James Comey asking for appointment of an outside special counsel "to investigate potential criminal actions involving" Ashcroft and his committees.

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