WASHINGTON — The Senate Select Committee on Ethics "severely admonished" Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) on Tuesday, citing his "poor judgment" and failure to heed the rules in accepting expensive gifts from a major campaign contributor.
Torricelli, a first-term senator locked in a tight November reelection battle, immediately accepted the judgment of his peers. On the floor of the Senate late Tuesday, the 50-year-old lawmaker offered a sweeping apology to his constituents and fellow senators.
"During recent weeks I have spent long nights tormented by the question of how I could have allowed such lapses of judgment to compromise all that I have fought to build," said Torricelli, in an uncharacteristically soft-spoken delivery. "It might take a lifetime to answer that question to my own satisfaction."
The stern three-page letter issued by the committee Tuesday night came less than a week after the House of Representatives expelled Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio) for serious ethics violations--making him only the second member of the House to be thrown out since shortly after the Civil War.
Whereas Traficant was convicted of federal corruption charges in April, a three-year Justice Department probe of Torricelli ended in January without an indictment. The U.S. attorney's office in New York City concluded that there was "not a reasonable possibility the government could prevail at trial" and turned the matter over to the ethics committee.
Torricelli's fate has generated interest in part because of the Senate's close division along party lines, with control of the chamber potentially resting on the changeover of a single seat in the November elections.
Last week, the committee's three Democrats and three Republicans heard from only one witness, Torricelli. The committee also reviewed thousands of pages gathered during the criminal probe into Torricelli's relationship with David Chang, a former friend and booster serving 18 months in prison for making illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign.
Chang has alleged that he gave Torricelli cash and gifts to gain his assistance in business dealings. The ethics committee letter noted, however, that the Justice Department officials and a federal judge had concluded that Chang "could not be trusted."
Nonetheless, the members cited instances in which Torricelli's actions "evidenced poor judgment, displayed a lack of regard for Senate Rules and resulted in a violation of the Senate Gifts rules" as well as public disclosure obligations.
"After evaluating the extensive body of evidence before it and your testimony, the Committee is troubled by incongruities, inconsistencies and conflicts, particularly actions taken by you which were or could have been of potential benefit to Mr. Chang," said the letter, signed by Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-Ark.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio.).
The admonishment is one of several forms of punishment, short of censure or expulsion, that the committee is allowed to issue without a vote by the full Senate.
Torricelli said to his colleagues that, although "it has always been my contention that at no time did I accept any gifts or violate any Senate rules, the committee has concluded otherwise."
And he said he intended to comply "immediately" with the committee's demand that he pay fair-market value for items Chang gave to him, his sister and other friends. They included a big-screen television, a CD player and earrings.
He apologized to "the people of New Jersey" for having "placed the seat of the United States Senate they have allowed me to occupy ... in this position."
But he also defended his record in office.
"The question that I want every person in New Jersey to have answered today is that all during this ordeal, I never stopped fighting for the things that I believed, I never compromised in the struggle to make the lives of the people I love better," said Torricelli, one of the Democratic Party's most effective fund-raisers.
In New Jersey, the campaign office of Torricelli's Republican challenger, businessman Douglas Forrester, issued a sharp rebuke, calling on the senator to release his sworn testimony to the ethics committee and other statements he made during the criminal probe.