SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I have been publicly raped
TERENCE SMITH: Fighting words even from the often combative senator from New Jersey, Robert Torricelli, who says he has been the subject of a smear campaign. The senator -- elected in 1996 and up for re-election next year -- has enjoyed the spotlight for his highflying social life and high-octane presence in the Senate. But now, his personal and campaign finances are under intense investigation. His accusers say he has stretched campaign finance laws and padded his legislative salary with questionable gifts, including Italian-made suits, a Rolex watch and gold cuff links.
Torricelli denies any wrongdoing and contends that the Department of Justice -- under Attorney General John Ashcroft -- is leaking details of the investigation to the press, particularly the New York Times. This, despite the fact that the inquiry is being handled by the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee. In a letter, his lawyer asked for a special prosecutor to take over the investigation. The letter says, "The leaks coming out of the department have turned into a flood" and that "criminal charges against the senator could lead to a return of the United States Senate to Republican control." Before asking for the special prosecutor, Senator Torricelli took his case to the media this spring.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: I have been shocked at how much people who take an oath to defend the law are willing to leak information, plant stories, sometimes true, often false. It has been… it has been a learning experience.
TERENCE SMITH: More recently, congressional colleagues have come to his defense. Congressman John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, grilled Ashcroft at one hearing.
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Elected officials -- like everyone else in this country -- deserve to be tried in the courts and not in the press. And I'm sorry to say that when it comes to Senator Robert Torricelli, your Justice Department has been leaking like Niagara Falls.
TERENCE SMITH: Conyers questioned who was feeding the press information leading to headlines --employing the senator's nickname, "The Torch," such as this one: "Torch is Toast. Feds: we have enough evidence to indict New Jersey Senator Torricelli."
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Have you or any member of your staff ever discussed Senator Torricelli's case with anyone employed by the White House, a Republican senator, a Republican congressman, or his or her staff or any employee of the Republican National Committee?
JOHN ASHCROFT: Have I ever mentioned the Torricelli matter to anyone else? Yes. I just mentioned it to you here in the committee, and obviously I've mentioned it to people when I was a member of the Senate when the items have come up.
TERENCE SMITH: The New York Times, which has covered the story extensively, has been labeled by Torricelli's lawyers as a principal beneficiary of the leaks. Its reporters, especially Tim Golden, have repeatedly cited "people involved in the case" in their reporting, often giving detailed accounts of what witnesses allegedly have told investigators.
This front page article, which appeared April 18, reported that the probe's focus had shifted to allegations that Torricelli received gifts and cash from a businessman, former supporter and friend, David Chang. Chang is cooperating with investigators as part of a plea agreement in which he admitted illegally contributing more than $50,000 to Torricelli's 1996 campaign. The story prompted the senator to convene a hastily-arranged press conference.
SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI: Perhaps I've earned some enemies in government and in politics. But I have never ever done anything at any time to betray the trust of the people of the state of New Jersey -- never!
TERENCE SMITH: Last week two leading Democratic Senators asked Ashcroft in this letter to instruct his subordinates to "ensure that these leaks are stopped" and to "identify those responsible for them." And Democrats, newly in control of the Senate, have raised the possibility of conducting hearings into the leaks.