Did Ashcroft Take the Lowroad on the Highroad?

Copyright © 2001 by David Corn & Dan E. Moldea

The Nation published this story on January 15, 2001.

When George W. Bush introduced the soon-to-be-ex-Senator John Ashcroft as his choice for Attorney General, he noted that the first trait he desired in an AG was "unquestionable integrity," and he proclaimed Ashcroft "a man of enormous integrity." As Ashcroft, a favorite of the religious right, is assailed for defending the leaders of the South's slavocracy, for proclaiming that in America "we have no king but Jesus," for his pure-as-it-gets opposition to abortion and even some forms of contraception, and for much more his advocates use Ashcroft's supposed integrity as a firewall. Responding to Ashcroft critics, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, called his close friend "a person of absolute integrity.... [he] will have integrity to do what's right." The pro-Ashcroft line is: You may disagree with him on the issues--his defenders have to concede that--but you can't question the man's integrity. But when Ashcroft was governor in Missouri he rendered a decision that reaped a campaign contributor millions of dollars--and the probity of the deal was indeed questioned by a prominent newspaper and citizens in his state.

     In 1992, the city of Branson--a tourism mecca visited annually by millions who attend the country-music halls there--was burdened by traffic congestion. Thirty thousand cars a day were jamming the town's Country Music Boulevard in peak season. Ashcroft declared the situation in the Ozarks an "economic emergency" in order to build a road. This was the first time this gubernatorial power had been used to facilitate construction of a highway, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Ashcroft's declaration opened the way for the quick approval of a $140 million, eighteen-mile bypass promoted as the solution to Branson's traffic mess--a claim challenged by some locals, who blasted the Ozark Mountain Highroad as an "Ashcroft pork-barrel" project.

     But there is no question that the new highway was beneficial to several key political contributors to Ashcroft, most notably Peter Herschend, an owner of the Silver Dollar City amusement center. The road--US Highway 465--would skirt Branson and swing by Herschend's Silver Dollar City, making it easier for tourists to reach the site of shops, variety shows and rides. A Post-Dispatch analysis of land records found that the Herschend family stood to gain the most from the project. The proposed road would cross three stretches of Herschend-owned property, and in 1993 the family sold one of them to the state for $2.2 million. Locals called the road "Pete's Pike."

     "They were trying to steal our market," Jim Thomas, who runs two music-houses in Branson and who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic senatorial nomination in 1994, told The Nation. "Declaring Branson an economic emergency was an oxymoron. There was traffic, but we were at our peak for business."

     One did not have to be a partisan Democrat to wonder if Ashcroft's support for the project was enhanced by his relationship with Herschend. In October 1994, as Ashcroft was campaigning for the Senate, the Post-Dispatch reported that Herschend, his wife and business had donated $12,000 to Ashcroft campaigns in the previous ten years and that Herschend had hosted fundraisers for Ashcroft. According to subsequent federal elections records, Herschend and his family contributed $18,000 to Ashcroft's 1994 Senate effort and $7,000 to the Republican Party that campaign cycle. (Herschend's son, Chris, worked on Ashcroft's campaign staff in 1994.)

     According to Herschend, the road grew out of conversations he held with Ashcroft and highway officials in 1991 and 1992. And when Ashcroft declared the "economic emergency" at a public meeting in Branson in June 1992--just months before he was to leave office--he was introduced by Herschend. At that time, Ashcroft said the highway would be finished by 1998 and reduce traffic congestion in downtown Branson. (The road is still under construction and years away from completion; two years after the announcement, studies showed the road would draw off only a small amount of Branson's traffic.) Some local businesses favored the highway, environmentalists opposed it (the road would run through the habitat of endangered birds), and other opponents maintained that a costly project of unproven effectiveness was being rushed over their objections. But the US Department of Transportation approved it in February 1993. When the Post-Dispatch asked Herschend about the project a year-and-a-half later--the last time this story received any serious attention--the businessman said that when he was lobbying Ashcroft for the road he didn't know the bypass was going to run through his property. But the newspaper discovered two maps drawn up before the official announcement that showed the proposed road passing through or near Herschend's land. The 117 acres the state purchased from Herschend for $2.2 million was to be used for building an interchange that would handle traffic to Herschend's Silver Dollar City.

     Ashcroft told the paper that he backed the road to assist Missourians not the Herschends. Nevertheless, the Herschends appeared appreciative. After 1994, Herschend, his family, and his business donated $33,000 to Ashcroft and about $40,000 to other Republicans.

     Perhaps Ashcroft resorted to unusual means to push this road because he truly believed it was in the public interest. But the deep involvement of an Ashcroft donor/fundraiser in the project caused the Post-Dispatch to question Ashcroft's integrity. In an editorial the newspaper asked, "Did the Ozark Mountain Highroad--US Highway 465--get special priority and favorable treatment because at least two of the landowners along the proposed right of way were campaign contributors of then-Gov. John Ashcroft?" The newspaper noted that Ashcroft's designation of the highway as an "economic emergency" had "no meaning under law" and "raises serious questions of public policy." It added that the "apparent connections between contributions to politicians and the priority given this highway at least raises doubts about safeguarding the public interest." This was all good This was all the more reason, the paper said, for campaign finance reform.

     In general, politicians of unquestionable integrity do not behave in a manner that provides ammunition to advocates of campaign finance reform. But here was one instance when Ashcroft acted in a fashion that led observers to suspect he is not as honest as he is pious. It's unlikely Ashcroft's nomination will be scuttled because of a Missouri highway deal. (Such shady-looking arrangements happen frequently in state government; Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill know that.) But his defenders should hope no other episodes like this emerge. Ashcroft's road to confirmation is paved with claims of his integrity. If other potholes appear on this street, the Ashcroft Express, already riding on weak axles, may not reach its destination.

Illustration credit:  People for the American Way