Ashcroft pressed on special prosecutor for Enron probe
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A key lawmaker on Tuesday pressed U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on why he has not appointed a special prosecutor to head the criminal investigation into the collapse of Enron Corp.
U.S. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-South Carolina, questioned Ashcroft during a Senate Appropriations Committee Hearing on the Justice Department's budget request. Hollings is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has been investigating the Enron collapse.
Hollings said he was concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest in the Justice Department investigation into the Enron debacle. Even though he commended Ashcroft for recusing himself in the case, Hollings questioned whether more shouldn't be done.
"You do have extraordinary circumstances. You've got to use the highest care to make sure [of] impartiality," Hollings said. "Under the law, you can appoint a special counsel, and that would end any misgiving that anybody could have about the final report."
Enron contributed to Ashcroft's losing 2000 Senate campaign as well as to many other political races in recent years. According to the nonpartisan organization Center for Public Integrity, Ashcroft received nearly $61,000 from Enron executives and the company's political action committee.
"I believe that it was my responsibility to recuse myself," Ashcroft said at the hearing. "Once I recuse myself, I do not make further judgments about the case. I do not involve myself in the case."
Hollings questioned whether having Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson in charge of the investigation would raise the appearance of a conflict of interest. The senator noted that Thompson heads the department's counterterrorism efforts, a role that requires him to work closely with Ashcroft.
Hollings also indicated that Thompson's former law firm had represented Enron.
"You know your deputy attorney general intimately. You work closely together. ... You recuse yourself, but I mean, you're working with him closely," Hollings said, adding that if a special prosecutor were appointed, "then there'd be no question."
But Ashcroft declined to engage in a debate.
"I've recused myself and withdrawn myself from this matter," the attorney general said. "Once I've done that, I don't deal with the matter further."
Hollings said Thompson had been invited to the hearing with Ashcroft but did not appear. Ashcroft said he would urge Thompson to make himself available to the committee.
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