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Former Attorney General John Ashcroft on Tuesday aggressively defended a multimillion-dollar contract his company was awarded to monitor fraud settlements, denying that it presented even the appearance of impropriety. Ashcroft, testifying at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, said that an Indiana medical equipment company and New Jersey U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, a former subordinate of Ashcroft’s when he was attorney general, “agreed to seek my services,” without his knowledge and then offered him the work. Ashcroft testified that he did not bid for the contract, nor did he know whether the parties had considered others to monitor the settlements. The Ashcroft Group, the consulting firm Ashcroft founded after resigning as attorney general in 2005, is expected to receive between $28 million and $52 million for monitoring Zimmer Holdings, a Warsaw, Ind., company. Zimmer entered into the agreement last year to avoid prosecution for allegedly paying doctors to use its replacement knees and hips. Ashcroft denied that his connection with Christie constituted a conflict of interest or even the appearance of impropriety. “No law that I know of has been violated,” Ashcroft said. The hearing came a day after the Justice Department announced new guidelines for the use of corporate monitors in deferred prosecution agreements, an alternative to criminal prosecution in which companies accused of wrongdoing pay a government-sanctioned monitor to help bring them in compliance with the law. Under the new guidelines, U.S. attorneys have to get approval from Justice Department officials in the Criminal Division and the Office of the Deputy Attorney General for the agreements. Monitors must be selected based on the merits, resulting in “a highly qualified and respected person or entity” who would “avoid potential and actual conflicts of interests and otherwise instill public confidence,” according to an eight-page memo released yesterday. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, asked Ashcroft whether he thought he would have been chosen for the job under the new guidelines. Ashcroft said he believed that it would have been “very possible” that the Justice Department would have approved his contract. He clashed with Sanchez throughout the questioning, interrupting her frequently. At one point, Ashcroft told Sanchez that “this hearing costs more money than any corporate monitorship.” “Not a single cent of tax dollars is spent on deferred prosecution agreements,” Ashcroft said. He later criticized her for “attacking” Christie, whom he called an accomplished prosecutor, and suggested that Sanchez’s concerns about impropriety were so misplaced as to be discriminatory against former public officials. “This is not a conflict of interest,” Ashcroft said. “There is not an appearance of conflict.” “Very interesting answer, Mr. Ashcroft,” Sanchez said.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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