Beverley Lumpkin: Halls Of Justice

Attorney General John Ashcroft may be starting to find out what President Eisenhower's Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, famously said about the job: "It's just one goddamn thing after another." (Not, of course, that Mr. Ashcroft would use such language.)

Reports are starting to circulate that he's been losing his temper — even with his FBI security detail.

He was said to be annoyed that he was being charged for the detail's time when they accompany him on personal errands.

One version of the story had him informing the agents, "I don't think I need you any more!" Another version had him saying he would take the matter up with FBI Director Louis Freeh.

One source said he wants his wife to travel with him at government expense and is annoyed at regulations that forbid it. A longtime career employee expressed sympathy that the attorney general is required by his job to have security, but then must repay the government when they accompany him, for example, to pick up the dry cleaning.

This official also pointed out there is sometimes a difficult transition for former members of Congress accustomed to the perks of Capitol Hill when they join the executive branch.

Spokeswoman Mindy Tucker has been unable to respond to these accusations thus far.

Sunday Service

Meanwhile, plans are proceeding for Ashcroft's formal swearing-in or investiture.

Rather surprisingly, it's been scheduled for a Sunday — March 18 to be precise. No one can remember any attorney general ever being sworn in on a Sunday before.

Tucker says the reason is he wanted out-of-town friends and family to be able to attend. One source said he's sent out 500 invitations, even though the Great Hall only seats 300.

One former top career official, however, asserted the real reason for having it on a Sunday is precisely because he did not want department employees in attendance.

That's all very well, but opening the building up to that crowd on a Sunday is going to cost more than $10,000 in overtime, according to the former official.

First Official Complaint

Ashcroft has become the subject of a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by Common Cause, which alleged his former campaign committees violated election law.

When Ashcroft briefly considered running for president, he set up a political action committee known as "Spirit of America PAC." Apparently, the PAC gave a donor list, which had cost it $2 million to develop, to his Senate re-election committee, which turned around and raised $116,000 by renting it out to others (including Linda Tripp).

Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger asserts that the PAC had already contributed the maximum allowable amount, $10,000, to the committee.

Spokeswoman Mindy Tucker referred all calls to the PAC's executive director, who released a statement saying the PAC was in full compliance with the law, concluding, "We are confident that the FEC will agree and find that the complaint is without merit."

Where Are The Women?

At his press conference this week, I pointed out that Ashcroft had achieved remarkable diversity in his appointments announced thus far, in terms of African-Americans and one Asian-American, but that we had not seen one single female appointee yet.

Ashcroft's spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker, is the first woman ever to hold that position, but it is not a presidential appointment that requires Senate confirmation.

My question, where are the women, elicited laughter at the press conference and caused one reporter, a bachelor, to repeat the query incessantly for the rest of the day.

Ashcroft's response was fairly lengthy, noting how drawn-out the background process can be but assuring us that women would play a "significant" role at Justice.

Afterwards, I was taken aside by one of his aides and told that they have repeatedly been raising this point with the White House and warning it could spell trouble if they don't come up with some women for top jobs.

FBI Post-Hanssen Review

Former Director of both the CIA & FBI William Webster cannot get started with his review of FBI procedures in the wake of the revelations about accused spy Robert Hanssen until he gets a letter from Ashcroft setting forth his mandate.

A source close to Webster said it would be "foolish, silly and wasteful" to try to begin without prior agreement on what should be covered.

He says the job needs to be put into focus, given dimensions, and be brought "out of the amorphous and into the finite realm." They have to make sure there are no limitations or barriers on what they can do and where they can go.

There must also be the standard language about Freeh making the full resources of the Bureau available to assist. (However, Webster will likely use IRS agents and Postal Service inspectors to avoid the specter of the FBI investigating itself.)

But, for now there they sit, twiddling their thumbs, day after day, waiting for the letter that never comes.

This source was not concerned about interim steps being ordered by Freeh to begin some random polygraphing of agents in particularly sensitive positions, and to put checks on agents' ability to run their own names or addresses through Bureau indices.

He says nothing that begins now would interfere with the implementation of any recommendations Webster might ultimately make; there's nothing "we won't be able to either track or undo," he said.

Death Penalty Discomfort

I wrote two weeks ago about some officials' discomfort that Ashcroft had not yet met with the death penalty review committee or made any decisions on the committee's recommendations whether federal prosecutors should be given permission to seek the death penalty in specific cases.

He has still not met with the committee, although he has decided several cases.

One official is still worried that perhaps the Attorney General is not considering the cases himself but is merely rubber-stamping decisions being made in the Deputy Attorney General's office. (I've previously written that many believe the entire department is still being run from the Deputy's office by the Deputy's supposed subordinate, former transition chief Paul McNulty.)

The reason it could be troubling is that by statute the Attorney General alone must maKe death penalty decisions.

But a top aide to Ashcroft told me that there is no particular significance in the fact that the Attorney General has not met with the committee.

He said the procedure in place "appears to have been complicated" and they're trying to get their hands on it. He pointed out that up till now Ashcroft has accepted the committee's recommendations.

When I asked (as nicely as I could) if the decisions were being made by others and only rubber-stamped by the Attorney General, he very carefully (and quite nicely) pointed out that Ashcroft is "a very demanding and thorough official who requests full information before making decisions."

He added that Ashcroft was the governor who had to reinstate the death penalty in Missouri after the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional, and that he therefore takes it very seriously.

Nothing More ... Nothing Less

Please do not forget that, despite what the most elite journalists insist on repeating, President Clinton's final infamous clemency grants on Jan. 20 amounted to a total of 177, not 176.

There were 141 pardons and 36 commutations. Do not accept less!

Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for 15 years for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Friday.