Torricelli follows Clinton's playbook

N.J. senator using same style of defense in corruption probe

May 14, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - During the depths of the Clinton scandals, Bob Torricelli staunchly and steadfastly defended his friend the president.

Now the New Jersey senator is using a Clinton-style defense of his own to fend off a long-running federal corruption investigation that could wreck his career and frustrate his party's effort to gain control of the evenly divided Senate.

The 49-year-old Democrat, who counts "The Sopranos" among his favorite shows and isn't shy about being seen with a gorgeous woman on his arm, these days looks drawn and sleep-deprived.

A steady drip of published charges during the past year - including allegations that he took bribes worth tens of thousands of dollars from a former supporter - are clearly wearing on Torricelli, who denies doing anything illegal.

His Englewood, N.J., home has been searched by federal investigators. Fellow Senate Democrats, grateful for his prodigious fund-raising efforts on their behalf but increasingly nervous about what they read about him, are holding him at a distance.

"This is unbearable," Torricelli has said. "The worst experience of my life." And that was before the most serious allegations surfaced.

And yet, in a display of what was termed "compartmentalizing" when President Bill Clinton kept his personal problems separate from his public duties, Torricelli has become a central player in Washington's biggest inside game of the year: deciding which Americans will get what share of the $1.35 trillion tax cut.

Not long ago, Torricelli sat down with President Bush in the Oval Office - at Bush's invitation - for a private chat. In a brief interview, Torricelli termed the meeting, which covered budget and tax issues, a "very good" one.

A creature of Washington back rooms since his days as an aide to Vice President Walter F. Mondale, Torricelli assesses Bush as "very much" the sort of president with whom a pragmatic legislator could do business.

With a reputation for abrasiveness that was already well-known, Torricelli is rubbing many in his party the wrong way with his overtures to the Bush administration. They began last fall when he was one of the first Democrats to suggest that Al Gore concede the election. They continued when he praised Bush's choice of John Ashcroft as attorney general (although he wound up voting against him).

Critics hinted that Torricelli was trying to win the favor of the Justice Department, which began investigating the financing of his 1996 Senate campaign four years ago. Torricelli explained his outreach as an effort to enhance his influence in a Republican-led government and to do more for the people of his state.

He denied in the interview that the Bush administration might be trying to exploit his legal problems to win his vote in the Senate, adding that neither the president nor other administration officials had alluded to the investigation in their conversations with him.

"It would be inappropriate for them to bring it up," he said. "Nobody's mentioned it."

In fact, one top Republican strategist theorized, the senator's legal problems could make it increasingly difficult for the administration to woo him. Torricelli, who is up for re-election next year, may start tilting away from Bush, to shore up his Democratic base in the face of negative publicity.

That seemed to be what Torricelli was doing last week when he joined the vast majority of Senate Democrats in voting against the compromise budget, charging that it doesn't provide enough new money for education. A week earlier, when the White House enticed four Democratic senators to appear at a ceremony marking the budget deal, Torricelli was among those photographed with Bush.

Then again, Torricelli has long been known for the company he keeps. Over the years, a string of glamorous women have been seen in the divorced lawmaker's company. Most notable: Bianca Jagger, whom Torricelli dated in the 1990s.

Torricelli was also closely associated with Clinton and stood up for him during the Whitewater and White House fund-raising investigations. "And I'll never forget it," Clinton said at a 1999 campaign dinner in Newark, N.J., that raised more than $2 million for the senator's 2002 re-election effort.

But it is his association with New Jersey businessman David Chang that has drawn the most attention, putting in jeopardy Torricelli's future.

According to published reports, Chang said he gave Torricelli unreported gifts, including an $8,100 Rolex watch, 10 Italian suits and tens of thousands of dollars in cash. Chang, who is cooperating with investigators, pleaded guilty in June to making $53,700 in illegal contributions to Torricelli's 1996 campaign.

Torricelli's heated denial, at a home-state news conference last month, evoked comparisons to Clinton's famous line that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Pounding a lectern for emphasis, Torricelli said he had "never, ever done anything ... to betray the trust of the people of the state of New Jersey. Never!"

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