Bergen Record

 

 

Torricelli Probe Is Leaving An Imprint

 

 

By ADAM LISBERG and JEFF PILLETS Staff Writers

Sunday, January 6, 2002

 

 

The investigation of Sen. Robert G. Torricelli's personal finances and campaign funding ended without an indictment, yet it may lead to a surprising outcome: cleaner campaigns in New Jersey.

 

That was the conclusion of several politicians who said the years-long Torricelli investigation, which put the Englewood Democrat's finances under a microscope and put his political viability in doubt, would serve as a cautionary lesson to any politician thinking of bending the rules.

 

"Any young politician would have to be a lunatic, a moron, to think they now have carte blanche to play around the ethical corners," said former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio.

 

Yet observers also said the end of the probe points to the futility of focusing on one politician's actions when the entire system for raising and spending campaign dollars is the problem.

 

"There is a weakness in our political system, and it's the appearance of vulnerability to the power of money," said Sen. Jon S. Corzine, D-N.J. "When there's a substantial contribution from a specific interest, it can always create the appearance."

 

Some blamed the outcome of the Torricelli investigation on flimsy laws designed to regulate political money, which treat violations as misdemeanors, carry a three-year statute of limitations, and require high standards of proof.

 

"It's difficult for prosecutors to make cases because there are several loopholes in the law," said Charles LaBella, a former prosecutor who once headed the Justice Department's Campaign Financing Task Force. "The campaign-finance statutes themselves are riddled with problems."

 

Torricelli, who declined to comment for this article, always maintained he was a blameless man unjustly accused. With the threat of a federal indictment gone, he is considered tough to beat in his reelection campaign this year.

 

Outside New Jersey, Torricelli has also built a reputation as one of the Democratic Party's most indefatigable fundraisers. In addition to his own $12 million campaign in 1996, he raised tens of millions for Democratic Senate candidates -- putting the party in position to control the Senate last year.

 

In the last two years, however, prosecutors and reporters uncovered a broad range of questionable transactions in Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign. Seven people were convicted of making or abetting illegal donations to the campaign, and one of them, Cresskill businessman David Chang, said he tried to buy Torricelli's help on business matters with gifts of cash, jewelry, and Italian suits.

 

Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said without elaboration Thursday that the case would be closed without charges. She is referring some material from the investigation to the Senate Ethics Committee, which observers say is unlikely to take any substantive action.

 

White was the third prosecutor to oversee a probe that scrutinized records and questioned witnesses for at least three years. Torricelli's supporters said prosecutors were on a witch hunt. Congressional Democrats questioned whether the probe was politically motivated. Even campaign finance watchdogs are critical of the probe.

 

"It is ludicrous to have this kind of massive government effort to catch one official in a few misdeeds when the entire political system turns on a form of legalized bribery," said Micah Sifry, senior analyst at Public Campaign, a Washington, D.C., group that pushes for campaign-finance reform.

 

"Every senator and congressman knows he is expected to raise huge sums to get elected, and that most of that money will have to come from interested sources," Sifry said. "There is never anything in writing. There is never any explicit quid pro quo. But those interested sources accumulate access and power. If that isn't bribery, what is?"

 

Torricelli's lawyers said their client was vindicated by White's statement. They said he had been totally absolved of wrongdoing -- which they had predicted from the start. And while they never provided a detailed public defense of their client's actions, fragmentary statements from Torricelli and his legal team last year seemed to highlight the difficulty of bringing charges under the laws.

 

Take Chang's suits and jewelry, for example: Torricelli never denied receiving the items, but said he never took any "illegal" gifts from Chang, whom he called a former "friend." Under the law, gifts from a friend aren't necessarily illegal -- and prosecutors would have had the difficult task of proving a direct link between Chang's gifts and Torricelli's actions.

 

Or take the federal law that bars people from giving more than $2,000 to a Senate candidate, and bans businesses from donating anything at all. Several such people and businesses, who were prohibited from giving directly to Torricelli's campaign, instead gave large sums to the Bergen and Morris County Democratic parties. The parties then spent large sums on employees and printers linked to Torricelli's campaign.

 

Torricelli's attorneys never publicly defended the propriety of any particular donation. They simply pointed out that parties and candidates are allowed wide latitude in coordinating their campaigns.

 

Some observers said it was a fool's errand to try to find fault in individual checks from a years-old campaign, or to argue over whether a legal wrinkle could shelter unethical conduct. The larger message, they said, is that the system for regulating money in politics is impractical and impotent.

 

"We should not focus on the innocence or guilt of one politician when the whole political system is at fault," said Harry Pozycki, chairman of New Jersey Common Cause. "The rules of the game are the perpetual money chase."

 

Still, some politicians saw reason for hope, even within those rules. They said that after watching Torricelli's ordeal, no one would be tempted to push the boundaries and risk the wrath of federal prosecutors looking for a prominent scalp.

 

"Every politician who watched what Bob Torricelli went through felt the same way a male sports fan feels watching a fighter get hit below the belt," said Tom Wilson, a longtime Republican consultant who is a spokesman for acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco.

 

"You might be able to make the argument that, 'Hey, the government took its best shot and lost, it's now open season,' " said one influential Democrat who is a close friend of Torricelli. "But I'm telling you, that is precisely the opposite of what is happening. People are damned scared. They're looking over their books. They're combing through contributions. They're vetting contributors. They're reviewing all their fundraising procedures."

 

The most prominent politician to do that, this person said, is Torricelli himself -- who has already raised more than $5 million for this year's reelection campaign.

 

"He went through a period of soul-searching," Torricelli's friend said. "I think he's a changed man, at least as changed as much as a guy like Bob Torricelli can be. As funny as it sounds, he's going to become an exemplar of clean fundraising and ethical conduct."

 

Staff Writer Adam Lisberg's e-mail address is lisberg@northjersey.com.

Trenton Bureau Correspondent Jeff Pillets' e-mail address is pillets@northjersey.com

 


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