John Ashcroft's Dubious Pen Pal

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John Ashcroft (l) visits with Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.)

Nearly three years ago, as Sen. John Ashcroft was considering a run for the presidency, he composed a hand-written thank-you note to a man many politicians would run from. Neatly inscribed on Ashcroft's Senate stationery, the letter went to Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, a firearms lobbying group considered extremist even by many conservatives.

"Thanks to you and GOA," Ashcroft wrote, the senator planned to call for significant changes in a juvenile-justice measure then working its way through Congress. An original cosponsor, Ashcroft ultimately withdrew his support for the bill because of the provision cited by GOA.

There is no evidence of further contact between Ashcroft, George W. Bush's nominee for attorney general, and Pratt, though Ashcroft had put out feelers to GOA activists in New Hampshire while exploring a presidential bid seven months earlier, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Nor is there anything unusual about a senator responding in writing to an interested citizen. But the discovery of the senator's personal note to Pratt is likely to fuel Democratic charges that Ashcroft is insensitive to minorities and civil liberties.

At the time Ashcroft wrote to Pratt, the Virginia-based activist was already branded as a pariah even by those considered to the right of the GOP: Two years earlier, he had been forced to step aside as co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign after news reports of his association with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations and militias.

Launches letter-writing campaign

In May 1998, shortly after Ashcroft's letter, Pratt had achieved some notoriety for a GOA press release following an incident in which a 15-year-old boy in Springfield, Oregon, shot and killed his parents and two students at his school. Pratt responded with a release headlined, "Lesson of School Shootings: More Guns Needed at Schools."

Pratt, however, is not just involved with the GOA — he is also president of another group, English First, an organization accused of immigrant-bashing that is part of the conservative coalition rallying behind Ashcroft's nomination.

The bill that concerned Pratt, the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Act, proposed tougher penalties on criminal street-gang activities. It even had the backing of the National Rifle Association. But Pratt's far more militant GOA launched a letter-writing campaign demanding that Ashcroft and other senators abandon the measure.

GOA objected, among other things, to a provision that would impose stiff penalties for gun violations under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). In his letter to Pratt, Ashcroft seemed to agree, saying, "I am working to see that the RICO provisions are stripped from the bill... ." A version of the measure passed both houses but died in a House-Senate conference.

ACLU also opposed bill

In an interview with TIME, Pratt appeared to be proud of the Ashcroft letter, which is posted on GOA's web site (item low on page). He noted, however, that his group gave the senator no more than a C minus in its ratings of members of Congress and will not support or oppose him for attorney general.

Mindy Tucker, a spokesman for the Bush transition, said Ashcroft wrote Pratt to thank him for making the senator aware of unintended consequences of the bill. "It's an indication of his appreciation for [Pratt's] heads-up," she said.

Tucker said Ashcroft ultimately withdrew his sponsorhip of the bill because he considered the RICO provisions overly broad, a position she added was also taken by the liberal ACLU.

Tucker said that despite the friendly tone of Ashcroft's note — it was headed "Dear Larry" and signed, "Thanks, John" — the senator has no personal relationship with Pratt, whose organization, she said, opposed his 2000 reelection bid.