By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2010; A10
A veteran Justice Department prosecutor will head the agency's internal ethics unit, which polices misconduct involving department lawyers, officials said Thursday.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. named Robin C. Ashton to run the Office of Professional Responsibility, which has been criticized by judges and members of Congress in recent years. Ashton, a top official in the U.S. attorney's office in the District, is a former sex crimes prosecutor who has worked for the Justice Department for 22 years.
The professional conduct of Justice lawyers has become a sensitive subject for a department that was acccused of mishandling evidence in the case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and allowing political interference in prosecutions during the George W. Bush administration. The office was established in 1975 after the Watergate scandal.
"As a veteran career prosecutor, Robin is uniquely qualified to serve as counsel for professional responsibility,'' Holder said. "She will lead the office with the highest standards of professionalism, integrity and dedication.''
Mary Patrice Brown had been running the office on an acting basis since April and is a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice's criminal division.
While Ashton's appointment fills one senior position, the fate of another critical Justice Department post remains unclear after Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked the nomination of James M. Cole for deputy attorney general. Republicans had expressed concerns about Cole's views on terrorism and his work reviewing the operations of American International Group, the insurance giant bailed out during the financial crisis.
With Congress adjourned, Cole's nomination was sent back to the White House. White House officials said Thursday night that he will be renominated. Gary G. Grindler has been in the post on an acting basis since February, but officials have stressed the need for a Senate-confirmed deputy.
The ethics office that Ashton will run faced criticism from congressional Democrats last year over its slow pace in investigating legal opinions issued duringthe Bush administration, which paved the way for harsh interrogations of detainees.
In perhaps the strongest rebuke, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in the District of Columbia expressed a lack of confidence in the office's ability to investigate lapses among agency attorneys that led to the collapse of the case against Stevens. The then-senator was convicted in 2008 on corruption charges, but prosecutorial wrongdoing led Holder to ask the judge to drop the case in April 2009, after Stevens was ousted by voters. Stevens died Aug. 9 in a plane crash in Alaska.
Sullivan took the extraordinary step of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate government lawyers involved in the case. That report is pending, along with a report by the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Among other sensitive matters pending in the office is an investigation of the Justice Department's handling of a controversial 2009 voter-intimidation lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party. Some congressional Republicans have questioned whether the office can be unbiased, since it reports to Holder.
Ashton came to the U.S. attorney's office in the District in 1991, where she prosecuted more than 50 felony jury trials. Among her cases was the 1996 conviction of a Landover man accused of sexually assaulting two teenage boys at gunpoint in Northeast Washington. She is now the office's executive assistant U.S. attorney for management.
Colleagues described her as tough and highly ethical. "She has a strict sense of right and wrong,'' said Ken Wainstein, a former U.S. attorney in the District. Ashton vowed Thursday to "uphold the highest standards of professional conduct" at the department.
The department's new top ethics cop was herself a victim of the scandal over politicized hiring at Justice during the Bush years. Ashton was denied a promotion at the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, where she worked from 2001 to 2005, because she did not pass political muster with Monica M. Goodling, a Justice Department aide accused in government reports of being a central figure in the politicization.
Ashton was told she had a "Monica problem,'' according to sources familiar with the events. In a 2007 congressional hearing, Goodling did not directly address whether Ashton was denied a promotion but acknowledged there had been tension between the two.