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Ashcroft addresses issues

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As if to say "Take that!" to his critics, Attorney General John Ashcroft has spent his first months at the Justice Department pounding out civil rights initiatives, assembling a racially diverse group of senior deputies and reaching out to groups that opposed his confirmation.

After a bruising Senate confirmation where Democrats piled on criticism about Ashcroft's conservatism and record on racial matters, the former Missouri senator seems to have gone out of his way to show a gentler side.

Ashcroft says his actions reflect his beliefs and are not designed to turn his critics around.

His efforts have earned tepid praise from his critics. But they say his early initiatives are not as robust as they could be.

"There's no question that there is an extensive public relations campaign going on, but we have to wait and see if there's real substance to what's he's proposed," said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People For the American Way, which opposed Ashcroft's nomination.

Ashcroft has pleased his conservative audience, too.

He went after the entertainment and video game industries for contributing to what he said was an "ethic of violence" that leads youngsters to lash out with guns. Ashcroft also reaffirmed his position that more gun laws or government programs will not solve the problem of violence in schools.

He is fond of reciting the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme to illustrate his point that the "king's men" -- meaning government -- cannot do what is the responsibility of parents, schools, teachers and communities.

Ashcroft declined to reopen an investigation into the case of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant gunned down in 1999 by New York City police officers, and refused to back down on his opposition to the nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White, a black, for a federal judgeship.

"He has taken tremendous first steps in cleaning up the Justice Department," said Lori Cole, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum.

Ashcroft has kept alive the investigation of former President Clinton's pardons, albeit at arms length, putting U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of New York, a Democrat, in charge of looking into all money-for-pardons allegations.

"We all know that the president's authority is a very broad authority, but I don't think anybody argues that the authority of the president, though, is to sell pardons," Ashcroft said last week, quickly adding that he was not suggesting that's what Clinton did.

He stumbled, though, last week when, during a news conference, he talked about weighing the death penalty in espionage cases when asked about whether the government would seek the death penalty for former FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen.

Lawyers for Hanssen, accused of spying for Moscow for 15 years, complained that Ashcroft violated Justice Department guidelines barring federal prosecutors from threatening to seek the death penalty in plea bargain negotiations.

Ashcroft aides said the attorney general was speaking in general terms, not specifically about the Hanssen case.

One of Ashcroft's first moves was to tackle racial profiling, the practice by law enforcement agencies of stopping people on the basis of race. He asked Congress to authorize the Justice Department to do a study of profiling. Federal and local law enforcement agencies would be required to report the extent and nature of profiling practices.

"It's wrong for police to stop people based on race," Ashcroft has said.

Critics said they wondered why Ashcroft did not simply begin a Justice Department review rather than hand the matter over to Congress.

"I would have been very impressed if he would have used the power of his pen and showed what he was willing to do in his own house," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who opposed Ashcroft's nomination.

Ashcroft said it is important that lawmakers "have a sense of ownership" over the study but said he will undertake the study himself if Congress does not act in six months.

On Thursday, senators will consider the nomination of Ashcroft's deputy attorney general, Larry D. Thompson. The Atlanta lawyer and former U.S. attorney is one of three blacks chosen by the Bush administration for top Justice Department posts.

While Thompson's confirmation is not expected to be controversial, the Ashcroft camp is preparing for hearings for Theodore Olson, nominated as solicitor general, who supervises government appellate work including Supreme Court arguments.

The Washington lawyer, a fixture in conservative legal circles, argued and won the Supreme Court decision on Florida's presidential voting that sealed George W. Bush's presidential victory.

Ashcroft says the sting of his own confirmation hearings is over.

"I really put the criticism behind me," he said, adding that his early work is "a response to the most deeply held principals that I have."

(c) 2001 Associated Press

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