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Ashcroft Committees Remain $48K in Debt

Two political committees once controlled by Attorney General John Ashcroft remain saddled with nearly $50,000 in legal debts stemming from a Federal Election Commission inquiry that found Ashcroft’s 2000 Senate campaign guilty of accepting $110,000 in illegal contributions from his leadership PAC.

Meanwhile, the leadership PAC once controlled by another member of President Bush’s Cabinet who lost a Senate re-election bid in 2000, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, remains active. It contributed $8,000 to federal candidates this year, including $5,000 to the Bush-Cheney re-election effort.

The Abraham committee, known as the Fund for American Opportunity, gave $1,000 gifts to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez’s (R) bid for Senate in Florida, state Sen. Larry Diedrich’s (R) House bid in South Dakota and Rep. Pete Sessions’ (R-Texas) re-election campaign.

The legal debts incurred separately by the Ashcroft committees — they used two different law firms, though they shared a common treasurer — mark the denouement of a years-long dispute over Ashcroft’s unsuccessful 2000 re-election bid to represent Missouri in the Senate.

The dispute centered on allegations that Spirit of America, Ashcroft’s PAC, exceeded contribution limits when it provided Ashcroft’s Senate campaign with the proceeds from renting out its donor lists.

The FEC’s initial failure to investigate the transaction led the National Voting Rights Institute, a liberal campaign finance watchdog, to sue the commission.

In December, the Ashcroft committees agreed to pay $37,000 to settle the ensuing dispute with the FEC. Ashcroft 2000 paid the fine in January.

“My understanding is that we are done,” said Garrett Lott, treasurer at both Ashcroft committees. “We just have some debts to pay off and then that’s it.”

Lott said he does not know how he will come up with the money to pay the debts that remain, though the committees together raised $93,000 toward that goal in the last quarter of 2003.

Lott stressed that fundraising is made difficult by the fact that he is legally prohibited from using Ashcroft’s name in solicitations.

Spirit of America raised only $1,000 in the first three months of 2004, while paying out $10,000 in legal fees to Trimble & Associates, a Minnesota law practice. During the same period, Ashcroft 2000 took in $3,452 and paid the Washington firm Patton Boggs LLC $17,000.

Between the two firms, the Ashcroft committees maintain an outstanding balance of $48,805. Ashcroft 2000 reported a separate “disputed debt” of $6,498 to William O’ Malley, a former employee.

Lisa Danetz, a lawyer who has pursued the Ashcroft matter for the National Voting Rights Institute, said the group has filed a second suit against the FEC for dismissing the central contention of the first: that the transfer of the lists to Ashcroft’s re-election effort needed to be reported, regardless of whether the FEC considered it to be in some part legal.

If the NVRI succeeds in its suit, Danetz said, it is conceivable that the Ashcroft committees will be drawn once more into the legal morass, though the FEC remains the real target of the group’s efforts.

The Fund for American Opportunity, Abraham’s former PAC, appears to remain a functioning committee, raising $14,000 in the last three months of 2003. The money, however, came principally from the PAC’s treasurer, Mark Valente III, and Claudia Barker Valente, who is identified as a Pentagon employee.

Mark Valente, who lobbies the Energy Department and other federal agencies, has managed the PAC since the period when it served as an arm of Abraham’s political operation. He could not be reached for comment last week.

The secretary’s former campaign committee, Abraham Senate 2000, paid off its remaining debt and closed its doors in April of last year.

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