AG Cleared on Patriot Act Speeches

Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) did not violate the Anti-Lobbying Act when he visited more than 16 cities to talk about the USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department said in a letter released Monday.

The agency's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, said the trips in August and September of 2003 did not run afoul of laws barring executive branch officials from engaging in grassroots lobbying or prohibiting the spending of government money on unauthorized "publicity or propaganda."

"Neither the Anti-Lobbying Act nor the appropriations provision prohibited the attorney general and the U.S. attorneys from making public speeches conveying DOJ's view regarding the merits of the Patriot Act and discussing the DOJ's use of the law's provisions," Fine said.

Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, had written the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General to ask for an investigation into whether Ashcroft violated the Anti-Lobbying Act (search) and the appropriations provision by going on the so-called USA Patriot Act (search) tour in 2003. 

Conyers based his request on a Government Accountability Office report that showed Ashcroft's tour and a pro-Patriot Act Internet site had cost more than $208,000 and also had involved activities by 80 of the 93 U.S. attorneys.

During these cross-country visits, Ashcroft appeared before audiences composed mostly of law enforcement officials to talk about his support of the Patriot Act and how he felt it helped in the fight against terrorists. The Justice Department spent more than $155,000 on the tour, and another $47,000 on some visits thereafter, according to the response letter dated Friday.

In the six-page letter, Fine wrote that nothing in the laws suggests that the attorney general should be prohibited from making public speeches about the Justice Department's perspective on the Patriot Act.

"We found no indication in the material we reviewed including texts of five of the attorney general's speeches and news accounts describing eight of his appearances, that he urged his audience to contact their elected officials," Fine wrote.

"In addition, given the DOJ's responsibility to enforce the criminal laws, we do not believe they could be considered 'purely partisan.'"

The Patriot Act, passed by Congress a few weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, gave federal law enforcement officials broader powers of surveillance and prosecution against suspected terrorists, their financiers and their sympathizers. Congress next year must decide whether to renew major parts of the law.

FOX News' Anna Persky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.