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Justice Department role in big-money settlement contracts a worry before Ashcroft agreement
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    WASHINGTON — Justice Department officials were concerned about having no oversight of lucrative monitoring contracts in white-collar crime settlements long before a no-bid agreement given to a former attorney general was made public, the nation’s top lawyer said Thursday.
    Attorney General Michael Mukasey, testifying in front of a House Appropriations panel, reminded lawmakers that money awarded in the contracts was paid by private firms that hire the independent monitors — and not taxpayers.
    Mukasey pointed out that the department has reined in its prosecutors’ authority by requiring future agreements to first be approved by the No. 2 official at Justice, the deputy attorney general.
    ‘‘The examination of monitorship of contracts was a department concern well before the stories hit the newspapers,’’ Mukasey told House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.
    Last fall, the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey acknowledged that he recommended that his former boss, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, monitor a settlement between the government and Zimmer Holdings Inc. of Warsaw, Ind. Ashcroft’s law firm netted an estimated $27 million in the deal.
    Zimmer Holdings is one of five makers of medical implants that agreed in September to pay $311 million and hire monitors to settle allegations they paid surgeons to use and promote their knee and hip replacements. The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who has denied any conflict of interest, recommended Ashcroft’s firm and four other legal teams to serve as monitors.
    Over the last 15 years, the Justice Department has increased its use of deferred prosecution agreements, many of which involving corporate fraud cases.
    Generally, corporations hire monitors as part of the settlement agreement with the government. The monitors watch to make sure the corporations follow the agreement, and the monitors can report back to the government with the results.
    Obey called the deal with Ashcroft ‘‘a poster child for concerns’’ worthy of the same level of outrage as congressional pet projects, or pork-barrel spending, that the White House has roundly criticized.
    ‘‘My argument isn’t with you, but it is with the White House budget office and the political geniuses down there who are finding unique ways to set double standards,’’ Obey told Mukasey. ‘‘Our point is that these are no-bid contracts.’’
    The panel’s top Republican, Rep. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, pointedly told Mukasey that ‘‘hopefully we’re making some progress that future such arrangements are indeed reviewed.’’
    ‘‘Amen,’’ said Obey.
    ‘‘Amen,’’ responded Mukasey.
    Mukasey was in front of the panel to defend the Justice Department’s $22.7 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
    Lawmakers also peppered him with questions about ongoing negotiations over updating the government’s terrorist eavesdropping program; the Bush administration’s refusal to submit to congressional subpoenas; prosecuting drug smugglers on the nation’s southwest border; and new sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders.

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