WASHINGTON — Former Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday denied receiving "a backroom, sweetheart deal" after getting a multimillion-dollar contract aided by the Justice Department.
"There is not a conflict of interest; there is not an appearance of a conflict of interest," Ashcroft insisted at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
A House judiciary subcommittee wanted Ashcroft to explain how the Ashcroft Group, the lobbying and consulting firm he started after he left government, won a no-bid contract worth $28 million to $52 million.
Ashcroft's task was to monitor an out-of-court settlement between the Justice Department and an Indiana medical device manufacturer, Zimmer Holdings Inc., that's accused of making kickbacks to doctors who used its equipment.
Christopher Christie, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey and a former employee of Ashcroft when he ran the department, recommended Ashcroft for the contract.
Defending his selection, Ashcroft said, "I will not allow external pressures to compromise my responsibility."
Ashcroft appeared to be trying to keep his anger in check, both at being called before the committee — he appeared under threat of subpoena — and at the criticism directed toward him.
A former Republican governor and senator from Missouri, Ashcroft was a highly partisan conservative while active in campaign politics and a lightning rod for Democrats.
As President Bush's first attorney general, his conservative views triggered numerous political battles. Tuesday's hearing recalled some of the sparks of old.
Right off the bat, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., who chaired the hearing, labeled Ashcroft's contract "a backroom, sweetheart deal."
"Mr. Ashcroft was selected with no public notice and no bidding," she said.
Ashcroft defended Christie, who didn't attend the hearing. At one point, he and Sanchez tried to speak over each other.
"You don't believe that it may be a conflict of interest in a former employee hiring the former boss, or suggesting that he be hired, for a very lucrative monitoring contract?" she asked.
Ashcroft denied any conflict.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said the attack on the former attorney general was "appalling." He called Ashcroft "a man with a distinguished history and unquestioned ethics."
The ostensible purpose of the hearing was to look into a Justice Department practice known as "deferred prosecution," used to settle some white-collar criminal cases out of court.
The department issued new guidelines on Monday, the day before the Ashcroft hearing. They require that the department's second-ranking official approve any corporate-monitoring contracts
David Nahmais, a U.S. attorney in Georgia, testified that deferred prosecution was a "middle ground" that allows corporate wrongdoers to pay fines and penalties but preserves "financial viability."
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said that was a far cry from the experience of some people in his district where the watchword is, "Do the crime, do the time."
Johnson asked Ashcroft why his firm received a $750,000 monthly fee in addition to an hourly rate of as much as $895.
Ashcroft said the hourly rate applies only to certain members of the team that he developed for the job. He said they included former U.S. attorneys, former FBI members, accountants, investigators and others.
Ashcroft also said that under the Justice Department policy, the corporation pays the money. None comes from taxpayers.
"This hearing cost far more in tax dollars than my monitorship will cost because it did not cost taxpayers one thin dime," he said.
Ashcroft had to leave the hearing by noon to catch a plane.
"We wish you luck in catching your flight," Sanchez said.
Ashcroft lightened his tone, too, and asked for "some congressional immunity on the highway."