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THE NATION

No Charges Filed in Torricelli Probe

Courts: The outcome of a political-favors inquiry on the senator is a setback for Justice Department.

January 04, 2002|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Thursday it will not file charges against Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), ending an influence-peddling investigation that threatened to derail his hard-charging career and hurt his party's chances of keeping its Senate majority.

The decision, announced by the U.S. attorney's office in New York, clears a cloud that had hovered over Torricelli for more than a year. It had made him a vulnerable political target in the November elections, when the one-seat Democratic edge in the Senate will be at stake.

The probe's outcome is an embarrassing setback for the Justice Department, which devoted years to the investigation and faced criticism that it was trying to force the senator into a legal surrender last year by leaking details of its inquiry to the press.

To many in Washington, the conclusion of the investigation was seen as perhaps the last of many Clinton-era campaign finance scandals that produced more headlines than convictions.

"Most of the people who were tied up in these messes were never indicted and never faced a legal penalty," said Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "Campaign finance law is full of loopholes, and the smart ones are good at going right to the edge but no further. Torricelli is a smart one."

A brash politician known on Capitol Hill as "The Torch," Torricelli was accused of trading political favors for cash, carpets, suits and other gifts from a wealthy New Jersey businessman, David Chang.

U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White, the Manhattan-based prosecutor who supervised the probe, said she had decided not to press charges after "an exhaustive investigation" by her office, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Customs Service. In Washington, Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry D. Thompson said he was satisfied with White's decision.

Elated by the news, Torricelli issued a statement Thursday expressing gratitude to supporters and saying he was eager to move beyond an ordeal he described as "a lengthy and personally painful experience."

White said the Justice Department had delivered materials from the investigation to the Senate Ethics Committee, which could pursue its own investigation of Torricelli.

But political experts said the committee is unlikely to move against Torricelli, especially with Democrats in control of the chamber. And Torricelli's attorneys said that, even if the committee does investigate, they are confident it will find in favor of their client.

A committee official declined to comment.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said he was pleased that his confidence in Torricelli "has been justified" and that his colleague "can return his full energies to the continued representation of his constituents and service to the Senate."

Indeed, Torricelli observers predicted an immediate reemergence of a politician who was known for his prodigious fund-raising and news generating talents before the investigation forced him into a defensive crouch.

Torricelli, who was elected to the House in 1982 and won a Senate seat vacated by Bill Bradley in 1996, has never denied receiving gifts from Chang, said to include Persian rugs, Italian-made suits and cash. But he has steadfastly denied that he did anything illegal.

Federal law prohibits government officials from accepting gifts except from relatives and friends. Torricelli, 50, has repeatedly stressed that he once considered Chang a friend.

Much of the government's case hinged on the testimony of Chang, who two years ago pleaded guilty to making $53,700 in illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 campaign. Chang then began cooperating with prosecutors, alleging that he lavished Torricelli with gifts in exchange for help from the senator on various business deals.

In one instance, Torricelli accompanied Chang on a trip to Seoul, leaning on top officials there to grant favorable consideration to an attempt by Chang to purchase a South Korean insurance company.

But Chang was a problematic witness. He has used multiple passports, multiple Social Security numbers and was married to two women at the same time. In one court motion, prosecutors wrote that Chang "simply cannot be trusted at his word."

As prosecutors grappled with Chang's credibility problems, details of the case began to emerge in New York and New Jersey papers last year, prompting an outcry from Torricelli and some of his colleagues.

Torricelli complained that he was being "publicly raped" by the FBI. In June, Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, expressing their "dismay about recent press reports" concerning the Torricelli investigation.

The revelations wounded Torricelli enough that state party officials in New Jersey began to call for a more candid accounting of his relationship with Chang. Others suggested he resign or not seek reelection this year. But Torricelli, who in his political career has relished confrontation, said he never considered stepping down.

The ordeal does not seem to have significantly damaged Torricelli's standing with voters in New Jersey, where recent polls show he continues to have a 60% approval rating.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent Republicans have decided not to run against him.

However, experts said the Justice Department probe will likely take a toll on Torricelli's national ambitions.

The details that surfaced "will make it very difficult for Democrats to consider him for president or vice presidential nominations," Sabato said.

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Times staff writers Nick Anderson and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

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