- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

Few elected officials have seen their standing in Washington plummet as rapidly as Sen. Robert Torricelli's has since New Year's Day. On Jan. 3, outgoing U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the New Jersey Democrat in the investigation of contributions to his 1996 Senate campaign. The White announcement prompted headlines like "Torricelli cleared in federal probe" (CNN.com) and "Post-Probe Future Brightens For Ambitious Sen. Torricelli" (The Washington Post). Mrs. White did, however, forward to the Senate Ethics Committee information uncovered during her investigation into charges that the senator received illegal gifts and cash from a campaign contributor. Asserting that the case was resolved, Abbe Lowell, one of Mr. Torricelli's attorneys, dismissed the U.S. attorney's referral of the case to the ethics panel as a mere "face-saving gesture." He couldn't have been more mistaken.

In reality, Mrs. White (a Clinton appointee) had set into motion a series of events that have placed Mr. Torricelli's political career in jeopardy, and, with it, the Democratic Party's one-vote margin in the Senate. Within days of Mrs. White's announcement, Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid, Ethics Committee chairman and the first senator to contribute to Mr. Torricelli's legal defense fund, was under fire from groups like Common Cause, which said the Nevada lawmaker had a conflict of interest when it came to sitting in judgment of Mr. Torricelli. Mr. Reid quite properly recused himself from the Torricelli investigation.

But it has long been abundantly clear that senior Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, were more concerned with retaining control of the Senate than going forward with a full investigation of charges that Mr. Torricelli had improperly accepted gifts and cash from David Chang, a convicted felon currently serving an 18-month federal prison sentence for obstruction of justice and making $53,700 in illegal contributions to the 1996 Torricelli Senate campaign. Mr. Daschle, the newspaper Roll Call reported, last year "orchestrated an outpouring of support for Mr. Torricelli, an effort that included numerous senators such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and former Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph Biden publicly questioning the motives of the GOP-led Justice Department."

Late last month, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, acting in Mr. Reid's place as chairman of the ethics panel, said he wanted to conclude the Torricelli investigation after hearing from just one witness: Mr. Torricelli. This newspaper published a July 29 editorial suggesting that a whitewash might be in the works, and, the following day, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to "severely admonish" Mr. Torricelli for violating gift rules. Unfortunately, Mr. Daschle attempted to publicly distort and discredit the panel's findings, asserting they showed that "unsubstantiated" charges had been leveled against the New Jersey senator.

To his credit, Mr. Torricelli (who had previously likened being investigated to being a rape victim) has behaved in a more dignified way than Mr. Daschle since the ethics committee vote, saying he apologizes for his conduct and takes "full personal responsibility" for his behavior. Now, Mr. Torricelli has the opportunity to prove it. In late July, he testified for more than three hours behind closed doors about the charges made against him. The ethics committee, which says that most of Mr. Torricelli's testimony is based on grand jury testimony that must be kept under seal, is refusing to make the hearing record public. But Mr. Torricelli is free to release his own testimony at any time. If he's sincere about his apology, he needs to make his testimony public. Only then will the people of New Jersey be able to carefully evaluate the full committee record of his misconduct and decide whether they want him to continue to represent them in the Senate.

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