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Donor Claims Link to Senator's Car Purchase

April 03, 2001|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A major political donor has told authorities that he put money down to help Sen. Robert Torricelli buy a luxury car during his 1996 Senate campaign, but that the New Jersey Democrat scuttled the deal, according to law enforcement officials and lawyers.

Torricelli bought the Mercedes-Benz with his own money after businessman David Chang had put several thousand dollars down at the dealership, according to the officials familiar with Chang's account.

FBI officials are investigating whether Torricelli improperly solicited gifts from Chang, and agents gathered documents from two dealerships where the senator bought cars in the 1990s, lawyers and officials told Associated Press.

The issue of gifts--a thorny subject under congressional ethics rules--has emerged as one of several disputes between Torricelli and Chang in an investigation that has broadened beyond political donations to the senator's personal finances.

Torricelli's office said Chang never provided any money to the senator in connection with a purchase of a car, adding that when the lawmaker learned of Chang's effort to put money down at the car dealership, he "put a stop to it immediately." Torricelli's lawyers have repeatedly attacked Chang as a "pathological liar."

Chang's attorney responded to the criticism Monday, saying Torricelli "never hesitated to hold out his hand" seeking personal favors from his client.

The officials and legal sources told AP that federal authorities have ascertained that Chang and Torricelli each put several thousand dollars down at a New Jersey dealership on a Mercedes-Benz in August 1996. At the time, Torricelli was a House member about to win a seat in the Senate.

Chang has pleaded guilty to making improper donations to Torricelli's campaign and is cooperating with federal authorities.

He has told the FBI he discussed with Torricelli his interest in the car and made the payments to the car dealership in the senator's hometown of Englewood, N.J. Chang told authorities that Torricelli backed away from the financial help, according to officials and lawyers.

Torricelli purchased the used 1994 Mercedes-Benz for about $32,000--paying $5,000 cash and $27,000 in a check from his home equity loan, according to documents, officials and legal sources.

Torricelli's office said in a statement Monday that he never discussed the money with Chang and paid for his car himself, but learned from the dealership of Chang's effort to put money down on the vehicle and immediately stopped it.

"If David Chang has stated he discussed with Sen. Torricelli providing him money for a car in any way, that is no more credible than the dozen lies even the Justice Department has stated Chang has told," the statement said. "No such conversation ever occurred, and the senator paid for his car himself."

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