WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the eve of a Capitol Hill hearing into a lucrative deal for former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has tightened controls over U.S. attorneys and other officials who arrange deals that let firms avoid prosecution by accepting corporate monitors and making restitution to victims.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft is scheduled to testify Tuesday at a hearing into "deferred prosecutions."
The issue of "deferred prosecutions" and corporate monitors captured public attention when Ashcroft's firm was hired as an independent monitor for more than $25 million at the recommendation of his former Justice Department colleague, New Jersey U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie.
The new guidelines announced Monday may satisfy critics who complained deferred prosecution agreements were becoming commonplace, and that the appointment of monitors had no controls to protect against cronyism or conflict of interest.
"This is about requiring transparency, uniformity and consistency in the use of monitors," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said. Fisher said this is the first guidance issued to prosecutors establishing rules that standardize practices in the hiring of corporate monitors.
In a deal critics have called a cozy arrangement to benefit Ashcroft, Christie's friend and former boss, the medical equipment maker Zimmer Holdings agreed in September 2007 to pay the former attorney general's firm millions to serve as watchdog and oversee a deal that allowed Zimmer to escape criminal charges. The company was part of an investigation in which implant makers were accused of paying hospitals and doctors to use their brands of hip and knee replacements.
Ashcroft is scheduled to testify Tuesday at a hearing into the practice by the House Judiciary Committee. So are two Democratic congressmen from New Jersey, Bill Pascrell Jr. and Frank Pallone, who have complained loudly about the appearance of Ashcroft's hiring; and Justice Department official David Nahmias, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta, Georgia.
The new rules require U.S. attorneys to establish a committee of experts that will consider the hiring of monitors, and that any recommendation for a monitor must be approved by the deputy attorney general in Washington.
Justice Department officials stressed the review had begun months before the complaints about the Ashcroft contract. The department has not directly criticized the Ashcroft deal, and has emphasized that all of the money paid in deferred prosecutions comes from the corporation involved, not from taxpayers.
The Justice Department acknowledged Monday that the use of deferred prosecution agreements that may require monitors has increased sharply in recent years, since prosecutors have placed a priority on combating corporate fraud. E-mail to a friend
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