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Special Event

Ashcroft Hearings: Sen. Grassley Questions Attorney General Nominee

Aired January 17, 2001 - 12:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: Only three days before George W. Bush is inaugurated as the next president of the United States. And today, five of his picks for Cabinet positions getting a look-see up on Capitol Hill. Undergoing scrutiny by the U.S. Senate today are Colin Powell. He's the designee to be secretary of state. Also Christie Whitman. She's his pick to be EPA administrator. John Ashcroft to be attorney general. Also Mel Martinez to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And also Paul O'Neill to be secretary of the Treasury.

The hottest of the hot seats today being occupied by John Ashcroft, that designee to be attorney general. He's been quizzed this morning on abortion, on civil rights, on his support for capital punishment. Right now, Sen. Charles Grassley is asking him questions. Let's listen.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I'm extremely concerned about increased agribusiness concentration: reducing market opportunities, obviously, fewer competitors in the marketplace and then, consequently, the inability of farmers and producers to obtain fair prices for their products. I've also been concerned about the possibility of increased collusive and anticompetitive activity and I know that the farmers in Missouri are also worried about these issues and that you share the farmers' concerns about competition in agriculture.

The Antitrust Division of the Justice Department enforces federal antitrust laws. The current administration, while it paid lip service to farmers, really hasn't dedicated time and resources to agriculture competition issues. So I'd like to get a commitment from you, as much as you can give me, understanding you work for the president of the United States, that the Antitrust Division, under your watch, will pay heightened attention to any possible negative horizontal and vertical integration implications of agribusiness mergers and acquisitions that come up for review before your department.

I'd also like a commitment from you that the Antitrust Division will aggressively investigate allegations of anticompetitive activity in agriculture and that would include agribusiness, a step above the producer of agriculture. Could you give me an assure that the agricultural antitrust issues then -- this would just be one question -- would be a priority for this Department of Justice, your Department of Justice?

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Well, I thank you for your leadership in this area. You rightly mentioned that, as a neighbor, when I had the privilege of serving in the Senate, some of the difficult times that producers have faced because of consolidations and mergers, which have limited the sources or the places into which they can sell their products, have been a real challenge, and my record is pretty clear on this.

I sponsored legislation to try and elevate the understanding of the Antitrust Division in the Justice Department about agricultural issues.

Legislation would have placed people solely responsible for focusing on agriculture in that position.

I also would indicate that I'm aware of the fact that there are other agencies that act in this respect. The Packers and Stockyards Act needs enforcement, and we need the right personnel, I think. And at least that has been my position legislatively when I had the privilege of being in the Congress.

I thank you for framing your question with the understanding that I'll be part of an administration. And when it comes to policy issues, I'll be guided by the administration.

But this is a law enforcement issue. And I think it's fair for me to say that I'll enforce, to the best of my ability and with a perspective that understands some of these challenges that I don't think have been thoroughly understood previously in the antitrust evaluations, merger evaluations. At least, I'll want to make sure that they are understood. Whether or not they have been previously is a matter for debate.

I want people who are assessing proposed mergers and consolidations to not only look on the consumer for impact but to look at the producer for impact because I think competition has to be viewed on a pretty broad scale.

It is with that in mind that I will try to work with the antitrust laws to make sure that we continue to have a competitive marketplace for agriculture.

GRASSLEY: I have already written to the present attorney general and the antitrust division about my concern about the Tysons-IBP merger. And I know that you aren't there yet. You can't do anything about it. And all I can do is urge adequate enforcement of the laws. So I would ask you to take a special look at and, as bet you can today, assure me that the Antitrust Division under your watch will carefully scrutinize this specific transaction so that farmers and consumers can be confident that competition will not be harmed.

ASHCROFT: I am pleased to say to you that I will welcome you letters when I'm -- if I am confirmed and if I have the privilege of serving as the attorney general, and that I will give attention to the enforcement of these laws. I don't want to make a statement in this hearing today, which would affect the value of these entities in any way...

GRASSLEY: I know you can't.

ASHCROFT: ... positively or negatively as they are significant enterprises.

But my intention is to enforce the law relating to antitrust effectively and appropriately. And can assure you that if you call upon me for status reports or advising me to give matters complete and thorough attention, I'll welcome those communications.

GRASSLEY: You refer to some special attention that you would give agriculture the extent to which is appropriate in the table of organization. Right now there happens to be a position in the Antitrust Division that focuses specifically on agricultural antitrust issues. This position was created by the former assistant attorney general, Joel Klein, last year. Would you retain that position?

ASHCROFT: You know, I'll be very eager when I get to the department to assess the way the resources are allocated. And I don't want to start to redraw the organizational chart as it now exists. It would be presumptuous on my part; I've not been confirmed.

I can assure you that I will devote the kind of resources that are necessary to address merger and consolidation issues in the agribusiness community.

GRASSLEY: Some time ago I requested the General Accounting Office to review the Packers and Stockyards Act enforcement efforts of the Agriculture Department's grain inspection packers and stockyards program that's referred to by the acronym GPSA. The General Accounting Office found that the Clinton administration, despite official warnings and internal recommendations made both in 1991 and then again in 1997, had not made critical changes to GPSA's administrative structure and staff as recommended in these two previous reports; one, previous General Accounting Office report; a second one, the inspector general within the Department of Agriculture.

So then we have a General Accounting Office as much as eight years later saying, "You didn't do what we told you to do way back then." As a consequence, we find the U.S. Department of Agriculture being very ineffective in carrying out its statutory responsibilities to prevent anticompetitive practice in the livestock industry.

You happened to join me in introducing a bill which mandated implementation of the General Accounting Office report's recommendation to strengthen the U.S. Department of Agriculture's packers and stockyards program within a one-year timeframe, so that's law.

One of the legislation's provisions requires that what, hopefully, will be your department, the Justice Department, is to assist the U.S. Department of Agriculture in investigating livestock competition violations and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act during the timeframe of implementing those recommendations.

Would you be sure that your Justice Department carries out the requirements of that law?

ASHCROFT: Yes.

GRASSLEY: In addition, could you assure me that the Department of Justice will consult with the packers and stockyards division as it formulates effective competition policies and procedures to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act?

ASHCROFT: Yes.

GRASSLEY: Now I'd like to move on to another interest of mine, because I got legislation passed in this area maybe 15 years ago, and this law, called the False Claims Act, is always under attack.

And this is not something to answer, but I want you to be aware of people in the health care industry, people in the defense industry who will be trying to, through your department, get you interested in amending this act. And if they follow the procedures of the last seven or eight years that they've been trained to do this, as simple as it might sound, the end result is gutting the impact of this legislation.

And this legislation, for instance, in the last month or so, produced an $843-million recovery of fraudulent use of taxpayers' money that went back to the Treasury.

Well, I talked to you privately about this in my office, and so I said I would ask some questions for the record. This act is under constant attack.

Now, the Justice Department can file its own suits, or you can join qui tam-type suits under this legislation.

Thus, you as attorney general would be in charge of a good bit of legislation involving the False Claims Act. In fact, all that you want to be involved in, what you don't want to be involved in, a private citizen can bring, and they can do that even if the Justice Department does not intervene. And then, consequently, they are entitled to a share of any judgment or settlement as an encouragement for them to bring forth information about the taxpayers money being wasted.

I would ask one question. I'm concerned that the key people that you will include on your team, meaning the political appointees of the department have a positive attitude toward the False Claims Act. I am referring to the deputy attorney general, the associate attorney general, the solicitor general, and most importantly, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Division.

Before I ask the question, at times during the last eight years that I asked these very same people who were being appointed by President Clinton the constitutionality of the act had not been tested by the Supreme Court. It has been tested and the constitutionality upheld. So previously when I asked questions, I was asking them if they would defend the constitutionality of it. Soon the message got through and I got the message that they would defend it, and they did defend it. And consequently, thank God, the courts backed it up.

So now, I'm asking you that we have the constitutionality of it in place, that you will simply see that your people don't do any destructive action to what is already constitutional.

ASHCROFT: Senator, I believe that the law is in place, the constitutionality has been affirmed and we will treat the law with respect.

GRASSLEY: Thank you.

On bankruptcy, President Clinton vetoed a very important bankruptcy reform bill at the end of the last Congress. Senator Torricelli and I introduced that in a bipartisan way. It passed with a veto-proof margin. But it was pocket vetoed so we didn't have a chance to override.

MESERVE: You have been listening, of course, to the confirmation hearings for John Ashcroft. He is George W. Bush's designee to but the next attorney general. Chuck Grassley has been asking him whether the antitrust division at Justice will vigorously pursue antitrust matters relating to agri-business. This, of course, a major concern from Grassley, who hails from Iowa. But many of the other senators are more interested in Ashcroft's record as senator, as governor and as attorney general on matters like civil rights, abortion and gun control. They want to know what the interplay is between his record and his religion and his strongly held conservative views.

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