Ashcroft used state employee to fund-raise, records show

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While he was attorney general of Missouri, John Ashcroft made use of a state employee to conduct fund raising and other election activities, used letterhead with the attorney generals seal to solicit donations from contributors, and had an associate solicit campaign contributions from a business consultant to a company being investigated by Ashcroft's office, court records show.

On November 9, 1982, Ashcroft visited the office of Peter Merrill, president of Merrill Marine Services. During the visit, according to a court affidavit signed by Merrill, an associate of Ashcroft named Rick Freeburg told Merrill that Ashcroft, who had just stepped out of the room, was planning to run for governor, and “said something to the effect that the three most important things a candidate needs if he wants to be elected are money, more money, and still more money.”

Merrill, who said he had never been active in politics, was asked to help Ashcroft. “He indicated that John Ashcroft wanted me to raise $10,000 by the end of the year” that is, in the seven weeks left in 1982.

At the time Ashcroft made his fund-raising call on Merrill, his office was investigating charges that Inland Oil & Transport Co., and its president, Herbert Wolkowitz, were selling gasoline adulterated with an alcohol-based additive that could damage engine components of cars. Merrill said in his affidavit that his company provided surveying and other services for companies in the barge and marine business. One of his clients was Inland Oil. In January 1983, Ashcroft announced at a news conference in St. Louis that his office had filed a lawsuit against Inland Oil.

Inland Oil and Wolkowitz filed a countersuit in federal court, claiming that Ashcroft’s investigation violated their civil rights. In one filing, they claimed that, “Ashcroft has gone off on a lark of his own for his own, politically expedient purposes.”

“The way Inland Oil reads it,” Merrill told The Public i, “it was an attempt to shake them down.” Merrill expressed skepticism about the company’s reading of the case. “If he were trying to shake Inland Oil down, it seems he would’ve targeted them themselves.

“But even if Inland had given all 10 grand, would that have been enough for Ashcroft to soft-pedal the investigation? It doesn’t sound to me like it.”

Ashcroft has denied any wrongdoing. He declined to comment for this report, as did the White House. The suits were eventually settled.

Thomas Deuschle, Ashcroft’s administrative assistant and an employee of the state of Missouri, arranged the November 1982 meeting between Ashcroft and Merrill. When deposed by attorneys for Inland Oil, Deuschle admitted that he regularly contacted fund raisers on public time. Deuschle scheduled meetings for Ashcroft, accompanied him to various events, and was the person in Ashcroft’s office who was primarily responsible for the day-to-day activities of the attorney generals political campaigns.

Using letterhead called regular practice

Deuschle, who did not return calls from The Public i, also testified that it was regular practice to send out fund-raising letters on stationery adorned with the attorney generals seal, and signed by “John Ashcroft, Attorney General.”

One of those letters was sent to Wolkowitz, the president of Inland Oil, inviting the executive to join the “Golden Elephant Club,” a fund-raising vehicle of the state Republican Party.

The letter wasnt the last solicitation for donations Wolkowitz received on Ashcroft’s behalf. After his meeting with the Missouri attorney general, Merrill contacted the Inland Oil president the very same day. Wolkowitz declined to give any funds to Ashcroft. Since 1998, he has been a generous donor to political campaigns: He gave $44,000 to Democratic candidates, including $1,000 to Ashcroft’s opponent in the 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, the late Mel Carnahan.

The allegations against Ashcroft were spelled out in a letter sent last January 18 by John C. Bonifaz, executive director of the Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute, to Sen. Patrick Leahy, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Its troubling because at the least it demonstrates an insensitivity to the appearance of propriety, and also it disregards the rule of law,” Bonifaz told The Public i in an interview. “The public wants to know to what extent John Ashcroft misused the power of the office to raise money for the gubernatorial race. The public has the right to have answers before he is voted as the nations top law enforcement official.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 on January 30 to send Ashcroft’s nomination for a full vote in the Senate.

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