Friday, February 16, 2001

Teflon Bob Torricelli’s coat of armor is wearing a little thin these days. The once-invincible Democratic fund-raising superman can’t seem to shake questions about his prodigious campaign finance practices. Now the New Jersey senator who raised $12.5 million for his 1996 campaign and a record $87.2 million as Democratic Senate Campaign Committee chairman has turned on some of his deep-pocketed donors.

The Justice Department is on to something here. The clock is ticking (there’s a five-year statute of limitations for campaign finance violations), but maybe, just maybe, Justice’s election task force will be able to pin down the slippery politician’s role in alleged campaign corruption.

Mr. Torricelli and his lawyers dismiss his financial troubles as “garden-variety” bookkeeping errors. But since the federal probe of Mr. Torricelli’s 1996 fund raising began, six of his donors have pleaded guilty to making illegal straw donations for the purpose of evading contribution limits. At least two listed Mr. Torricelli donors told reporters they were illegally reimbursed by their company for contributions they didn’t make on their own. And three other donors have implicated Mr. Torricelli and his seasoned aides in their schemes.

Passing political contributions through unsuspecting donors doesn’t just happen with a slip of the pencil. It is deliberate money laundering, and it’s one of the most fundamental violations of campaign finance law. No official in the Torricelli campaign has yet been charged with breaking the law, but the campaign’s past working relationships with shady donors smell like a garden variety of rotten vegetables.

One of Mr. Torricelli’s old buddies, David Chang, pleaded guilty in federal court last summer to charges of illegally funneling $53,700 into Mr. Torricelli’s 1996 campaign. Chang broke contribution limits, made illegal corporate donations, enlisted straw donors, illegally reimbursed them and obstructed justice by pressuring one of his former employees to lie to a grand jury. According to the New York Times last week, Chang revealed to prosecutors that Mr. Torricelli “was not only aware of some of his illegal donations but also encouraged them” and that he encouraged Chang to flee the country.

Fair-weather Mr. Torricelli and his aides now attack one of their chief fund-raisers as a “pathological” liar and perjurer. Chang is “about as fraudulent a human being as has ever graced the Earth,” one of Mr. Torricelli’s lawyers told the press.

What does all this say about Mr. Torricelli? He knew that Chang, a Beijing-born entrepreneur who conducted exclusive business with the communist regime in North Korea, had made $12,000 in prior illegal donations to former California Rep. Jay Kim in 1992. Yet, Mr. Torricelli hired Chang to raise funds, placed calls to the government on his behalf and defended him last year against charges of foreign money laundering by accusing investigators of being motivated by prejudice because Chang “happens to be of a different race.”

Now, Mr. Torricelli’s dear friend yes, he used to call Chang “friend” is a pathological liar and world-class fraud. And now, Mr. Torricelli who is furiously raising money for his legal defense fund complains he is a victim of “the politics of personal destruction.” He has also traded in the race card for the generational card, casting his targeted staffers Adam Crain, Roberta Stern and David Plouffe as “dedicated young campaign workers who worked tirelessly” and “have done nothing wrong.”

At least two other Torricelli donors have come forward to dispute that claim. French businessmen Mark Rousso and Philippe Hababou, both suspected of financial fraud abroad, have told investigators they worked with Mr. Crain, the campaign’s chief fund-raiser, to pass $40,000 in proceeds from a Manhattan art auction to the campaign. Investigators are also reportedly looking into claims that Mr. Crain instructed Mr. Hababou to funnel money illegally through straw donors.

“Garbage,” says Torricelli lawyer Robert Bauer, “told by people who are peddling lies for profit.” These donors, he says, “offer only a distinguished and extensive history of complete and criminal fraud.”

Pathological liars. Perjurers. Distinguished frauds. “You shall judge of a man by his foes as well as by his friends,” Joseph Conrad wrote. No wonder Mr. Torricelli, who is used to dodging bullets, is now sweating them.

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