Same Washington, Different Office

Published: March 17, 2006

WASHINGTON — As attorney general, John Ashcroft was a model of moral rectitude to his conservative supporters. To his liberal detractors, he was overly self-righteous. Mr. Ashcroft sees himself simply as a man of integrity, and to him that is worth a lot.

So in the era of the Jack Abramoff scandal, Mr. Ashcroft has become a Washington lobbyist, setting himself up as something of an anti-Abramoff and marketing his insider's knowledge of how Washington works.

To do so, he has amassed a staff of Republican insiders and rented fancy offices. For corporations seeking contracts from the growing homeland security budget, Mr. Ashcroft promises to draw on his central role in the war on terror and in helping set up the Department of Homeland Security. For companies in trouble with regulators, he says his experience in cracking down on corporate corruption can provide valuable insights.

"Clients would call in an individual who has a reputation for the highest level of integrity," he said in an interview in his office. "Those who have been in government should not be forbidden from helping people deal with government, which is what I see myself doing." In the hourlong interview, Mr. Ashcroft used the word "integrity" scores of times.

Since opening his office in September, he has lined up 21 clients, turning down two for every one accepted, he said.

Still, some critics find his move from the nation's chief law enforcement officer to K Street, the heart of the lobbying world, to be as undignified as it is unusual.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said that because Mr. Ashcroft had worked only in government, "he cannot claim to have any business expertise."

"What is he selling," Ms. Brian asked, "other than connections and knowledge of how to game the system from being attorney general?"

One of Mr. Ashcroft's newest clients is ChoicePoint, a broker of consumer data that is increasingly being used by the government to keep tabs on people within the United States. The company received millions of dollars in contracts from the Justice Department under Mr. Ashcroft as part of the war on terror and has now hired him to find more.

"The Ashcroft Group contacted us and we initiated a relationship," said Chuck Jones, a ChoicePoint spokesman. "He's got a lot of knowledge that could benefit ChoicePoint."

Before the 9/11 attacks, there were few commercial opportunities at the Justice Department. Since then, the department has become a major clearinghouse for large contracts related to homeland security.

Mr. Ashcroft promises to guide companies through the maze, saying, "I have been at the heart of the war on terror."

In 2001, only 15 companies lobbied officials regarding domestic security. By 2004, that number had grown to 861, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington. Total federal spending aimed at preventing terrorism and other risks, including Homeland Security and other agencies, is $54.8 billion and is expected to rise to $58 billion in 2007.

"You want someone who knows the inner workings of homeland security because it's such a tangled mess," said Brian W. Ruttenbur, an industry analyst with Morgan Keegan, a brokerage firm. "Knowing somebody who understands the structure and can make introductions is invaluable. When you are a company you're focusing on making a product, and marketing it to government is very different."

After helping prosecute executives at Enron and WorldCom, Mr. Ashcroft also says he can counsel troubled companies on how to deal with government regulators and avoid the fate of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that collapsed after it was indicted in the Enron scandal.

"They need someone who can take threatening circumstances and neutralize them," Mr. Ashcroft said. "I'll be a lightning rod for people facing serious challenges."

Mr. Ashcroft is the only former Bush cabinet member and, by anyone's reckoning, the only former attorney general to have registered as a lobbyist. Many former attorneys general have had lucrative careers as political fixers without calling themselves lobbyists; in that sense, Mr. Ashcroft is being more transparent than his predecessors.

In a mission statement to prospective clients, he boasts of his connections. Mr. Ashcroft and "his talented team," the statement says, "have developed and cultivated close relationships with leaders in the corporate world as well as with officials in the top levels of the U.S. Government."

His staff includes David T. Ayres, his former chief of staff; Juleanna Glover Weiss, a Republican lobbyist and a former press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney; and a Republican fund-raiser, William C. T. Gaynor II, who helped raise more than $300 million in the 2004 election. He opened his office 10 months after leaving the Justice Department.

Fellow Republicans praise his venture. "To have someone around to guide you to protect the assets of the corporation, it would be John Ashcroft who you would want at the table," said Donald L. Evans, the former commerce secretary. "Any C.E.O. in the 21st century would want him."