Washington Post

Senator Robert G. Torricelli Free From Charges

By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2002; Page A01

Federal prosecutors said yesterday that they will not file charges against Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (N.J.), ending a three-year probe of financial dealings that once threatened the political future of a prominent Democratic lawmaker and fundraiser.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, in her final week in office, said federal authorities have completed an "exhaustive investigation" into whether Torricelli broke the law in taking gifts from New Jersey businessman David A. Chang, who previously pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions to Torricelli's campaign. White said she has referred information from the investigation to the Senate ethics committee.

Republicans had hoped a federal indictment would boost their chances of toppling Torricelli in this year's election, which might enable them to regain control of the Senate. But the probe's conclusion, coupled with the New Jersey GOP's recent inability to recruit a top-tier challenger, makes Torricelli's reelection prospects look much brighter than they did a year ago.

The investigation was politically ticklish for the Bush administration's Justice Department, which was concerned it might be accused of partisanship if it brought anything less than an iron-clad case against a Democratic senator.

Torricelli said yesterday he was "enormously gratified" by the news. His constituents had largely discounted the allegations against him, he said, and after an investigation "that took so long and was so thorough," they can feel certain the allegations lacked veracity. White's announcement puts him "in a very strong position" as he seeks reelection this fall, he said.

White's office would not comment on the factors that led to yesterday's decision or on what it was sending to the ethics committee. White said she decided against charges after reviewing findings of the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Customs Service.

Torricelli and his lawyers said they believe Chang's lack of credibility undermined his claims that he had given the senator illegal gifts.

"The point we wish to make is Bob Torricelli is totally innocent and he was falsely accused by a pathological liar -- a nut case," attorney Ted Wells said. "There was no vendor that corroborated Chang's allegations."

Chang claimed he had given Torricelli jewelry, clothes, cash and antiques in return for the senator's help in business dealings involving the governments of North and South Korea. Chang pleaded guilty in 2000 to making $53,700 in illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign.

Wells and co-counsel Mark Pomerantz said Chang's claims to investigators have grown increasingly fantastic. They said Chang has asserted that he made illegal payments to others, including then-Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, and that former president George Bush is a silent partner in his business.

But Chang lawyer Bradley Simon said "the notion that David Chang's accusations are false is preposterous." He said Chang will cooperate with the ethics committee if called upon.

Torricelli and his lawyers characterized White's referral to the ethics panel as a routine disposition of material that may result in no action. "I don't have any doubt the Senate ethics committee will deal with it expeditiously and put the entire matter to rest," Torricelli said.

Torricelli has said he provided only routine constituent service to Chang. He has said he never accepted any "illegal gifts" from Chang but has not specifically denied receiving various items.

Senate ethics rules require that gifts from friends be disclosed, and they bar the receipt of gifts worth more than $250 from friends without the committee's approval.

Before Chang pleaded guilty, Torricelli had embraced him as a friend. The two traveled to South Korea in 1999, where Torricelli took Chang to a meeting with Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil. Chang proposed to buy the Korea Life Insurance Co., then under government control. Chang also sought Torricelli's help in recovering $71 million he contended the North Korean government owed him for a grain shipment.

There were other instances when Torricelli helped the man he now condemns as a liar. For example, Chang was introduced to President Bill Clinton at a Torricelli fundraiser, and Torricelli vouched for Chang's legitimacy with Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe when McAuliffe hired on as a consultant for Chang in Korea. Torricelli also helped Chang when he sought a State Department meeting on a plan to import zinc from North Korea.

The Torricelli probe was unusually public at times, with detailed media reports of Chang's claims to investigators that he bought Italian suits, watches and antiques for the senator and had tens of thousands of dollars in cash delivered to his home. But Chang's credibility proved a dilemma for prosecutors. When FBI agents approached Chang at his home in 1999, he tried to pass himself off as the gardener, then told them then-Attorney General Janet Reno had assured him she was shutting down the probe.

The Bush administration asked White, a holdover from the Clinton era, to stay long enough to conclude the Torricelli probe and several other important cases. She inherited the investigation in February from the Justice Department's now-disbanded campaign finance task force.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who served in the Senate with Torricelli, was recused from any decision-making in the case. As chief fundraiser for Senate Democrats during the 2000 election cycle, Torricelli worked against Ashcroft's Senate reelection.

As a result, Ashcroft's deputy, Larry D. Thompson, has had ultimate responsibility for the case. In June, he turned down Torricelli's request that a special counsel be appointed after the senator and his lawyers accused investigators of leaking details of the investigation to the media.

Yesterday, Thompson expressed confidence in White's handling of the probe. "I am satisfied that after a thorough investigation, Ms. White and her office have appropriately exercised their prosecutorial discretion in keeping with the department's longstanding guidelines," he said in a statement.

Torricelli rose quickly into the Senate leadership ranks after moving up from the House in 1996. His prodigious fundraising for Senate Democrats has earned him the support of many in his party, even those who are not always happy with his inclination to vote with Republicans on some important issues.

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