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Contribution Inquiry May Cool Torricelli's Hot Streak

THE NATION

Politics: A federal probe appeared to pose no threat to the N.J. senator. But some revelations have wounded him.

May 12, 2001|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At Rutgers University in the early 1970s, while other students wore cutoffs and T-shirts, Robert Torricelli dressed in three-piece suits and carried a briefcase.

While other candidates for student government draped banners in dorm halls, Torricelli was elected class president by hiring sound trucks and brass bands.

And before most Americans had heard the word "Watergate," Torricelli was forced to resign as president of his sophomore class after the university concluded he had engaged in "gross unethical conduct" by sending a spy into his opponent's camp.

Nearly 30 years later, the New Jersey Democratic senator is in trouble again, but the stakes are considerably higher. This time, the investigators work for the U.S. Justice Department and the Senate's political balance may hinge on the outcome.

For about three years, a federal probe focusing on campaign contribution abuses appeared to pose no threat to Torricelli. But it's now clear investigators have set their sights on one of the most gifted--and sometimes self-destructive--politicians of his generation.

The probe seeks to determine whether Torricelli, 49, illegally received cash, watches, rugs, jewelry, a television and Italian suits from a New Jersey businessman, David Chang, who last year pleaded guilty to making $53,700 in illegal political contributions to the senator's 1996 campaign.

In recent years, Torricelli had done a number of favors for Chang, including taking him to meet officials in South Korea in a bit of international lobbying so brazen that U.S. diplomats later felt compelled to apologize to the South Korean government.

Torricelli, known as "The Torch" on Capitol Hill, has not been charged with any crime and denies any wrongdoing. He said recently he has "never violated any law of any kind." He added: "I never would have believed that uncorroborated accusations of a man who is . . . awaiting sentencing to federal prison would [be] taken seriously against a U.S. senator."

But the revelations have wounded him at a time when he should be enjoying his greatest political influence. He played a crucial role in his party's surprising surge to parity in the Senate. As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2000 elections, he set fund-raising records, prodded candidates to enter races they won and helped guide a number of incumbents to victories.

"We wouldn't have been close to [the Senate's 50-50 party split] without Bob as chairman," said Jim Jordan, who worked for Torricelli at the committee.

Torricelli faces reelection next year, and a race that seemed a lock for him now appears uncertain because of the federal probe. Even presumed allies are expressing concern. "Folks are going to want a greater explanation [from Torricelli]," said Thomas Giblin, chairman of New Jersey's Democratic Party. "I don't think it would be helpful to have this lingering as he approaches a Democratic primary in 2002."

The fallout has knocked Torricelli on his heels, an unfamiliar posture for someone trained for politics almost from birth.

He grew up in a politically active family in Franklin Lakes, N.J. His father was an attorney. His mother, a librarian, tutored him about public policy, decorated his room with flags and played recordings for her son of speeches by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Torricelli won the first race he ever entered--for fifth-grade class president--and hasn't lost since, a streak that carried through each year of high school, all four years at Rutgers, seven terms in the House and one in the Senate.

After college and law school (also at Rutgers), Torricelli was on the staff of Vice President Walter F. Mondale by age 27. In 1982, at age 31, he beat a Republican incumbent for a House seat.

Torricelli quickly displayed a knack for making headlines, whether he was flying to San Salvador to retrieve the corpse of a New Jersey journalist or striking up a romance with Bianca Jagger, ex-wife of the Rolling Stones' lead singer.

But in his pursuit of publicity, Torricelli left some colleagues dumbfounded. In 1989, he took it upon himself to spearhead the legal defense of House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who was about to resign amid allegations he had taken improper gifts from a developer, George Mallick.

In a line of argument that later would strike other lawmakers as troubling and revealing, Torricelli implied that members ought to be more sympathetic to Wright because they too were surrounded by clumsy influence-seekers. "We all know George Mallick," Torricelli said in a speech before the House Ethics Committee. Several years later, Torricelli met Chang.

An entrepreneur with interests ranging from grain exports to real estate, Chang was seeking help with international business deals. Chang also had money, and Torricelli increasingly saw fund-raising as his path to party prominence.

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