- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft has been called before a House committee next week to explain to an angry panel chairman why he has refused to turn over documents outlining Justice Department decisions not to prosecute two high-profile campaign-finance cases.
Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said there is "no valid legal" reason why the documents are being withheld and compared Mr. Ashcroft's actions to the "stonewalling" tactics of former Attorney General Janet Reno.
In one of the first intraparty squabbles in the Bush administration, the Indiana Republican accused Mr. Ashcroft — a former U.S. senator who chided Miss Reno over those tactics — of having "one standard for a Democrat attorney general and another standard for yourself."
Mr. Burton, whose battles with Miss Reno over her refusal to make documents available led to several public confrontations, said Mr. Ashcroft's decision to withhold the documents contradicted promises he made earlier this year to make the Justice Department more accountable.
"It is hard to believe that public confidence in our investigators and prosecutors can be restored by an inflexible policy that prevents Congress from discharging a constitutionally mandated duty," Mr. Burton said in a letter to the attorney general, noting that the committee had oversight responsibility of the department.
Mr. Ashcroft was asked to appear before the committee Thursday to explain why the department failed to prosecute a former White House aide and an ex-Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor.
A statement issued yesterday by Mr. Burton's office said Mr. Ashcroft would be asked about what the panel called an "alarming" decision by the Justice Department to withhold the documents.
"The Justice Department's policy is unprecedented. Indeed, all previous administrations found ways to reach accommodations with Congress," the statement said. "It is the committee's position that this new standard cannot be accepted by Republicans or Democrats."
Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden said in a statement that while Mr. Burton's desire to gain additional information about past decisions is "understandable," the department would resist any request that could "undermine its mission to protect and defend justice."
"The oversight responsibility of Congress is fundamental to the constitutional system of checks and balances," she said, noting that the department "expends considerable resources complying with such oversight efforts."
"However, the types of memoranda being sought by Chairman Burton contain advice to the attorney general and other senior officials, and are among the most sensitive deliberative documents, precisely because they pertain to prosecutorial decision-making," she said.
Miss Dryden said the department "takes very seriously" its responsibility to protect the privacy interests of Americans who have been the subject of Justice Department investigations.
In a rare display of intraparty bickering, Mr. Burton noted in his letter that Mr. Ashcroft — as the Republican senator from Missouri — accused Miss Reno in 1998 of "stonewalling" when she refused to turn over prosecutors' memos to various Senate and House committees.
In a 1998 CNN interview, cited by Mr. Burton in the letter, Mr. Ashcroft said Miss Reno was obligated to turn over the memos because Congress was entitled to see them.
Mr. Ashcroft said during the interview that Miss Reno had "just learned from the president a technique we call stonewalling."
"Your position in 1998 was unambiguous, and it was correct," Mr. Burton wrote. "Thus, I am at a loss as to why you would take a contradictory position just a few years later."
The committee, which has been investigating campaign-finance abuses during the 1996 presidential elections and other Justice Department matters, wants to review documents showing why prosecutors declined to pursue cases against two officials.
Former White House aide Mark Middleton was suspected of conspiring with Chinese officials to funnel illegal donations to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore Re-Election Committee.
Former DEA Agent Ernest Howard was suspected of lying to the committee about his role in shutting down an investigation of a suspected drug kingpin after Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, complained that the probe's target was a victim of racial profiling — an accusation later shown to be false.
The committee also subpoenaed a memorandum by the Justice Department's former campaign-finance task force chief, Robert Conrad, regarding his recommendation that a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate campaign-finance abuses — a recommendation Miss Reno rejected.
Kevin Binger, the committee's general counsel, said the documents being requested are from cases that have formally been closed and "there appears to be no reason not to produce them."
He said the Justice Department's arguments "just don't stand up to the committee's need to conduct legitimate oversight hearings."
Mr. Burton, in his letter, said Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff informed the committee earlier this year that the Justice Department no longer intended to share internal, deliberative memos with the House committee.
"His position was cast in absolute, inflexible terms," Mr Burton said, adding that while he continued to have confidence in Mr. Ashcroft, that personal trust "does not diminish the responsibility of this committee to conduct vigorous oversight of the Department of Justice."


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