Shortly after he was confirmed as attorney general, John Ashcroft was invited by Enron Corp. Chairman Kenneth Lay to speak at an exclusive meeting of corporate leaders, Justice Department officials said Friday.

Lay, vice chairman of the Business Council, introduced Ashcroft at the Feb. 22, 2001, meeting in Washington. Ashcroft spoke about the importance of lowering crime. Also speaking that day: Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Christine Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Government officials, including Federal Reserve members as well as Cabinet secretaries from all recent administrations, have spoken at other meetings of the Business Council, whose members are executives of the nation's largest companies.

Ashcroft's speech was arranged by his schedulers and the attorney general never spoke directly to Lay, said department officials.

The information was released in response to an inquiry by The Associated Press about Ashcroft's dealings with Enron since he became attorney general.

Before he became attorney general, Ashcroft had met with Lay several times at political fund-raising events during the 2000 election season, officials said. Lay and Enron executives donated more than $50,000 to Ashcroft's fund-raising committees in his unsuccessful campaign for Senate re-election in 2000.

Ashcroft has disqualified himself from a Justice Department criminal investigation of the failed energy company.

Lay's contacts with members of the Bush administration were the focus of intense scrutiny after officials disclosed that Lay and Enron's president had contacted two Cabinet members and a top Treasury official for help when the company was in a financial tailspin.