A former U.S. attorney and New Jersey's Republican gubernatorial candidate Thursday defended an arrangement in which one-time Attorney General John Ashcroft's consulting firm made millions of dollars monitoring a controversial deferred prosecution agreement.
In a sometimes tense exchange with congressional Democrats, Chris Christie told the House Judiciary Committee that the choice of Ashcroft was acceptable to the company, Zimmer Holdings Inc. But the testimony from Christie, who once worked for Ashcroft, was at odds with e-mails that surfaced before the hearing that showed the company was unhappy with the fees it had to pay Ashcroft's firms.
In one e-mail, Christie said he was "disappointed" by the firm's complaints about the fees to Ashcroft's firm and said "we can't afford to be distracted."
Ashcroft's consulting firm stood to make $28 million to $52 million or more for 18 months of work monitoring a hip and knee replacement manufacturer accused of giving kickbacks to doctors. The contract, paid by the accused, allowed Ashcroft's firm to bill monthly fees and expenses of $1.5 million to $2.9 million or more, including a base of $750,000, according to documents provided to congressional investigators.
Christie said the e-mails were part of negotiations with highly paid attorneys, and it would be expected that the firm would make such complaints.
The House Judiciary Committee is investigating the agreements, which allow companies accused of crimes to avoid trials by paying fines, changing practices and agreeing to oversight. The agreements are lucrative boons to consulting firms like Ashcroft's.
Christie defended the agreements, saying they were done openly, saved jobs and were able to "achieve results of justice for the public."
Eileen Larence of the Government Accountability Office testified that some companies GAO interviewed that had been part of such agreements complained that they had little leverage to address concerns about the amount and scope of monitors' work.
Christie approved seven such deals, but the one involving Ashcroft, also a former Missouri governor and senator, raised eyebrows.
Last year before the same congressional panel, Ashcroft denied there was anything improper about the deal. Christie also has denied any conflicts.
In New Jersey, Christie has a legitimate shot at unseating Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who has seen his popularity wane. Democrats have sought to capitalize on Christie's role in the arrangement and his congressional testimony.
Shortly after Christie appeared on Capitol Hill, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement, accusing Christie of using "his position to help his friends, and now those very friends are helping him fill his campaign coffers. Chris Christie's repeated ethical lapses demonstrate that he's just not up to the task of serving as governor of New Jersey."