He may not have trashed any hotel rooms, but US Attorney General John Ashcroft spent over $200,000 of taxpayers' money in a four-week, 31-city tour last year promoting the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, according to a report by Congressional auditors released Tuesday.
Ashcroft launched the PR effort in August 2003 in the face of growing criticism of the surveillance law, elements of which are set to expire next year.
The attorney general spent three weeks on the road visiting with public officials, local law enforcement and the media in such far-flung locales as Salt Lake City, Utah; Boise, Idaho; and Las Vegas, Nevada, hitting 14 states and 16 cities, including his Washington D.C. home base. At the end of September, he followed that up with a week of what the Justice Department called "Life and Liberty" travel, touting the importance of the USA PATRIOT Act in speeches in another 15 cities around the country.
No roadies are listed in the report, but anywhere from four to six senior Justice Department staffers accompanied Ashcroft on his travels. Counting 29 advance trips, flights for Ashcroft and his staff, conference room rentals and other expenses, the effort cost a total of $202,345.66. The bill for audio-video equipment rental alone exceeded $45,000 according to the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm.
Another four thousand dollars went to set up the Justice Department's pro-USA PATRIOT Act site, lifeandliberty.gov.
The GAO report was produced at the request of Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. After auditors briefed Conyers on their findings last month, the lawmaker accused Ashcroft of violating federal laws that prohibit the executive branch from conducting "propaganda" or legislative lobbying with public money. He asked the Justice Department's Inspector General to open an investigation.
The 132-page USA PATRIOT Act increases federal policing and surveillance powers, among other things, and it passed with overwhelming support in Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But since then growing concerns about the potential for abuse have put the Justice Department on the defensive, and several legislative proposals would roll back, or provide more oversight for, the added surveillance powers.
Last month a federal judge struck down a statute modified by USA PATRIOT that allows the FBI to issue "National Security Letters" demanding customer records from Internet service providers and other businesses without a court order. Under USA PATRIOT, anyone's records can be targeted in a terrorism or espionage investigation, while previously such orders were limited to records of suspected terrorists or spies.
In a written response to the GAO report dated 6 October, the Justice Department claimed that the USA PATRIOT Act tour served the under-acknowledged secondary purpose of law enforcement information sharing. "This dialog between the Attorney General and state and local law enforcement occurred at nearly every stop during the Attorney General's travels," wrote Paul Corts, assistant attorney general for administration. "The Attorney General's staff took notes to record the input offered by state and local law enforcement and then followed up on these suggests and concerns afterwards."