Ashcroft hearing: The man who wasn’t there

WASHINGTON — United States Attorney Chris Christie didn’t attend today’s Congressional hearing, but his presence loomed over the proceedings.

The hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law was broken up into two panels: the first consisted of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett and attorneys Timothy Dickinson and George Terwilliger III. The second panel consisted of New Jersey Democrats Bill Pascrell and Frank Pallone.

Republican members of the committee stressed that deferred prosecution agreements were vital to keeping companies that employ thousands solvent, and noted that monitors were not paid with taxpayer dollars. Democrats questioned whether corporations were getting a separate form of justice from blue collar criminals.

But not far behind the discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of DPAs was a partisan fight: Democrats insisted that Chris Christie giving Ashcroft, his former boss, at the very least gave the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) said that Ashcroft’s appointment as a monitor appeared to be the results of a “backroom, sweetheart deal.”

Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of impugning the character of Ashcroft and Christie. That feeling was especially evident in the testimony of Ashcroft, who praised Christie’s prosecutorial record while all but accusing Democrats of a partisan witch hunt.

“We are here today battering people who are trying to save a company and give it a second chance. I just find it remarkable,” said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-AZ). “There’s no situation in America that Congress can make worse. And this hearing today is an example of that.”

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) wondered why Democrats weren’t anxious to look into the chromium cleanup contract given to former U.S. Sen. Bob Torricelli (D-NJ) or about the recent controversy erupting over allegations that Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) steered funds from the Stryker family to congressional Democrats (one of the subsidiaries of the Stryker family’s company, Stryker Orthopedics of new Jersey, was one of the other four medical implant companies that received a deferred prosecution agreement).

In his testimony, Pallone lamented U.S. Attorneys’ ability to pick whoever they want for a monitorship without any input or oversight (Republicans countered that the very subcommittee they sat on provided that oversight). There needed

“Recently, it has come to light that certain federal prosecutors are using their powerful positions to steer no-bid contracts to former employers and other influential people with which they have close ties,” he said. “It seems like that every U.S. Attorney handles the process of appointing corporate monitors differently. Some, like Christie, literally dictated the choice.”

Pascrell, for his part, said that deferred prosecution agreements dramatically increased under Ashcroft’s leadership and that using them for corporate offenders was divorced from their original intentions. The lack of transparency was apparent, he said, because they wouldn’t have even known about Ashcroft’s role had the Star-Ledger not dug it up it an SEC report.

Ashcroft hearing: The man who wasn’t there