Ashcroft's compassion for a criminal

A favor for a suspected felon haunts Bush's top cop pick; civil rights groups charge to court over Florida's election flubs.

Published January 10, 2001 12:12PM (EST)

Linda Chavez has already learned that doing the right thing for the wrong person can have big-time political costs. Now Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft may be in line for the same lesson.

During his tenure as a Missouri senator, Ashcroft reportedly lobbied on behalf of Dr. Charles T. Sell, a St. Louis dentist. The Justice Department had indicted Sell on several charges, including conspiracy to murder an FBI agent and a witness. The murder plot was allegedly in retaliation for Sell's 1997 arrest on Medicaid fraud charges.

Not only could the revelation dim the shine on Ashcroft's anti-crime credentials, it will likely renew charges that he's too close to white supremacist sympathizers. One of Sell's most vocal allies is Gordon Baum, leader of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist group headquartered in Missouri that Baum leads and Sell belongs to. Ashcroft's most recent Sell-related meeting happened as recently as September, when he spoke to CCC member Thomas Bugel about the case.
-- Alicia Montgomery [2:45 p.m. PST, Jan. 10, 2001]

Florida fight continues

The NAACP, which has been working to stop John Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general, is also involved in a project that could damage his boss, President-elect George W. Bush. That group, along with several other civil rights organizations, announced Wednesday that it was filing a lawsuit to fix flaws in Florida's election process.

The suit, NAACP vs. Katherine Harris, et al., charges that black voter participation was seriously hampered by ineptitude and poor planning by the state authorities. Besides Harris, a host of other Florida election officials are named defendants in the suit. The action also targets ChoicePoint, a private company that supplied state election staff with a mistake-riddled list of names to be purged from voter rolls.

The announcement comes on the eve of U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearings in Tallahassee that will address some of the same allegations.
-- Alicia Montgomery [2:45 p.m. PST, Jan. 10, 2001]

Losing Linda

Shortly after 1 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Bush got word that his labor secretary nominee, Chavez, was taking herself out of consideration for the post. About three hours later, Chavez told the world about how her innocent acts of compassion to a Guatemalan illegal immigrant had left her open to a "search-and-destroy" mission by the press and her political opponents. But some insist that Chavez's own game of hide-and-seek with the truth caused her downfall.

Now what? First, the punditocracy will evaluate whether Chavez's speedy exit, which reportedly came after a not-so-subtle push by Bush, proves that the president-elect is a decisive leader or a battle-shy wuss.

Next, Bush has to fill an empty spot in his Cabinet. Names being floated around include former Rep. James Talent of Missouri; Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington; Eloise Anderson, former chief of the California Welfare Department; and Elaine Chao, former deputy transportation secretary and the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. If Bush wants to keep the double diversity whammy that Chavez provided him, Chao, an Asian-American woman, and Anderson, an African-American woman, could be early front-runners.

Bush's adversaries greeted Chavez's departure with a hardy goodbye and good riddance, as much for her politics as her hiring practices. And the first failure among Bush's Cabinet nominations has reportedly made Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft appear more vulnerable to attack by a coalition of liberal interest groups.

Rod Paige, secretary of education nominee, gets his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. The only serious questions for Paige are expected to cover the Houston school voucher program that he engineered. Other nominees scheduled for confirmation hearings are defense secretary wannabe Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday, would-be Housing and Urban Development chief Mel Martinez on Tuesday and Interior Secretary-designate Gale Norton and Energy Secretary-designate Spencer Abraham on Jan. 18.

In a sign that things could get much harder for Bush's nominees, secular saint Colin Powell, the secretary of state nominee, is being criticized for accepting a $200,000 fee from a Lebanese businessman for a speech he made days before the election. So far Powell, who disputes the size of the prize, has dismissed the whispers. His confirmation hearing is set for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the soon-to-be ex-president is participating in the Monday morning quarterbacking over the Florida recount. In a Chicago speech, Clinton said that the only reason Bush won the state was that Republicans provoked a court-ordered end to the recount.

Several press outlets have pooled their resources to find out if Clinton is right. Eight organizations are spending $500,000 to engage the National Opinion Research Center in examining 180,000 uncounted Florida ballots.

While Democrats and the press try to rain on Bush's inaugural parade, singer Ricky Martin will try to brighten it. The Latin pop pinup boy will be shaking his bonbon for Bush, performing with singer Van Morrison and TV's Kelsey Grammer at the inaugural kickoff party on Jan. 18.
-- Alicia Montgomery [6:30 a.m. PST, Jan. 10, 2001]

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------