The cancellation came after usnews.com reported that the department's ethics office had flagged the party as potentially troublesome in terms of appearance.
In an E-mail sent to the invitees, which Ashcroft's senior adviser, Juleanna Glover Weiss, provided to U.S News, Ashcroft said that he did not realize that "our sharing of a pizza and soft drinks might erode the high levels of integrity we worked so diligently to engender" when he was attorney general.
Ashcroft added that he did not "believe for a second" that the invitees' integrity "could be compromised for a piece of pizza." But he said that "no fellowship over lunch" was "worth the sacrifice of any public confidence in the justice community." Instead, "Going back to my traditional brown bag lunch," wrote Ashcroft, "will not be too much of a challenge for me."
The Justice Department's ethics office had not prohibited invitees from attending but asked them to consider how their participation might be perceived. It has been two years since Ashcroft left the department and formed the lucrative Ashcroft Group lobbying and consulting firm. So he's past some of the restrictions imposed on former government officials from lobbying their old agency.
However, because the Ashcroft Group has big clients that have been sued by the department, in antitrust and other ongoing litigation, the invitation raised eyebrows.
By Chitra Ragavan