When Sen. Robert Torricelli (D.-N.J.) quit his re-election campaign with a tearful self-eulogy September 30, some liberals commented that his ethical woes are no longer relevant to the political debate-“History. Hes out, its over. Lets move on,” CNNs Paul Begala said on Crossfire October 1.
But in fact, the recent release of a federal prosecutors memorandum-which Torricellis legal team had fought for months to keep sealed-raises serious questions about whether the Senate Ethics Committee took Torricellis misdeeds seriously, or if it contrived to help cover them up.
The committee-a bipartisan panel of three Democrats and three Republicans-did not appear to conduct a thorough review of the evidence against Torricelli before handing him a mild rebuke in the form of a July 30 letter “severely admonishing” him for accepting illegal gifts.
The prosecutors memo-released by court order September 26-cites “corroborating evidence” that David Chang, a Korean businessman and major donor to Torricelli, bought the senator an expensive Oriental rug and other items from “antique stores.”
The ethics committees admonitory letter scolded Torricelli for illegally accepting a $1,700 television and stereo system, a gift of earrings, and a loan of bronze statues from Chang, but made no mention of the $1,500 oriental rug that Chang said he had given the senator. It also failed to mention a $3,600 antique grandfather clock that Chang claims he bought for the senator or any other items that might be found in “antique stores,” as mentioned in the prosecutors memo.
The memo in question, originally filed in May by federal prosecutors, reveals new details of how Chang-convicted in 2000 of illegally funneling over $50,000 to Torricellis 1996 Senate campaign and then urging a witness to testify falsely-cooperated with federal authorities in their investigation of Torricelli. Chang says he gave Torricelli thousands of dollars in cash and expensive gifts at the same time the senator was trying to help him collect on a debt owed to him by the government of North Korea. (See HUMAN EVENTS cover story, Aug. 19, 2002.)
According to the memo, Chang spent “hundreds of hours” with federal investigators recounting his story, visiting the stores where he said he had purchased gifts for the senator, and combing over credit records and other documentary evidence to corroborate his testimony.
When Clinton-appointed U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White declined to prosecute Torricelli in January 2002, the evidence against the senator was passed on to the Senate Ethics Committee.
As the committees investigation came to a close in late July, the New York Times, citing unnamed federal officials, reported that the committee had received evidence corroborating Changs claims he had given Torricelli the clock, the rug, and at least $22,000 in cash. (See HUMAN EVENTS, September 30.) The Times also photographically reproduced receipts for the clock and the rug that tied the rug to both Chang and Torricelli, and confirmed with an antique stores owner that Chang and the senator had visited the store together to purchase the clock.
The committees letter of admonition noted that Chang-who had been convicted of coaching a grand jury witness to commit perjury-was not an ideal witness. However, all six senators who signed the letter-Republicans Pat Roberts (Kan.), George Voinovich (Ohio), and Craig Thomas (Wyo.), and Democrats Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), and Jack Reed (R.I.)-refused to respond to inquiries from HUMAN EVENTS about whether they had seriously investigated the corroborating evidence mentioned in the prosecution memo. None of the committees deliberations have been made public.
An ethics committee spokesman explained to HUMAN EVENTS that the committees secret deliberations were only a “preliminary inquiry.” In accordance with Senate ethics rules, the committee decided the matter was not worth pursuing beyond that stage when it chose only to “severely admonish” Torricelli instead of conducting public hearings.
In its letter to Torricelli, the ethics committee suggested that his testimony to the committee had not been entirely straightforward. “After evaluating the extensive body of evidence before it in your testimony, the committee is troubled by incongruities, inconsistencies and conflicts, particularly concerning actions taken by you which were or could have been of potential benefit to Mr. Chang,” said the letter. But instead of pursuing these matters further, the committee closed the case without calling any other witnesses.
Since none of the evidence or testimony considered by the committee has been officially released, the veracity of Torricellis testimony cannot by assessed by the public.
In spite of Changs cooperation with authorities, Torricelli was never prosecuted.