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Ashcroft adviser promised benefits to Oklahoma City survivors
WASHINGTON -- A longtime friend and adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft signed up Oklahoma City bombing survivors as clients with a promise to use his connections to win them government compensation in exchange for 10 percent to 27.5 percent of the proceeds.
About 120 survivors and victims' relatives from the 1995 bombing signed up for the lobbying campaign, which fell apart last month amid lawsuits and ethics complaints involving the organizers, according to court documents and those involved. The intent was to win a share of the hundreds of millions set aside for families of Sept. 11 victims.
The Ashcroft friend, St. Louis lawyer Charles Polk, has had occasional contact with senior Department of Justice officials, including Ashcroft, adviser David Israelite and Sept. 11 fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg, Justice officials said.
But officials were unaware he was soliciting business from Oklahoma City victims, or had a financial stake, Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said Thursday.
"No one in the attorney general's office, including the attorney general himself, had any idea that Charles Polk was working on any legal matters related to Oklahoma City victims or that Polk had a financial interest in connection with Oklahoma City," Comstock said.
Polk said in a statement released by his attorney that he worked as a lobbyist in an attempt to win compensation for the Oklahoma victims, but he never discussed it with Ashcroft and cleared all his actions in advance with lawyers.
"We operated under the assumption that we were in compliance with all applicable laws," Polk's statement said.
Some of those who worked with Polk say the St. Louis attorney suggested to them that Ashcroft's department supported the idea of extending the compensation Congress set up for Sept. 11 victims to the Oklahoma City families.
"He did say the Department of Justice felt there was probably an injustice and it would probably administratively happen, but it wasn't for certain," said Kathleen Treanor, an Oklahoma City woman who lost her 4-year-old child and in-laws in the explosion on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people. She joined the effort to sign up victims for the campaign.