Justice Dept. Probing Head Honcho

The Justice Department is reviewing allegations that Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) violated campaign finance laws during his unsuccessful 2000 bid for re-election to the Senate.

The department's Public Integrity Section (search) is examining whether violations identified by the Federal Election Commission warrant a full criminal investigation. If such a probe is launched, it could eventually be handed to a special counsel to avoid conflicts of interest with existing Justice Department officials.

The FEC determined in December that Ashcroft's former political action committee, Spirit of America (search), and his Senate re-election committee violated campaign finance laws by renting out a mailing list that resulted in an excessive, unreported $110,000 contribution to the campaign. PACs are allowed to give only $5,000 per election to a campaign.

The two committees agreed to pay a $37,000 fine in the FEC case. But several watchdog groups, including the National Voting Rights Institute (search) and Public Citizen (search), have been pushing for a broader investigation focused on whether Ashcroft properly reported ownership of the mailing list on government financial disclosure forms.

"Either Ashcroft owns the list or he doesn't. If he owns the list, then he didn't disclose it anywhere," said Lisa Danetz, staff attorney for the National Voting Rights Institute. "If he doesn't own it, then he was personally involved in a sham transaction."

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine (search), in an April 14 letter to the National Voting Rights Institute, disclosed that the matter had been referred to the Public Integrity Section. The existence of the letter was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post.

Ashcroft was defeated in his 2000 race for re-election to the Senate from Missouri. President Bush subsequently appointed him attorney general.