Torricelli follows Clinton's playbook


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!"

The senator has not addressed the substance of the allegations, but he has said he received "no illegal gifts" from his "friend" Chang.

That language was significant, lawyers say. Under a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, prosecutors must prove that a public official did something in exchange for a gift for the gratuity to be considered illegal. Also, legislators are not required to report gifts from a friend.

Torricelli's attorneys are being paid, in part, through a defense fund that has collected $660,000 from donors including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and his wife, Georgia, who each gave the $10,000 maximum.

The senator has denied that he did anything to help Chang, who said he sought Torricelli's assistance with some international business deals. Last week, the New York Times reported that a 1995 letter, written by then-Congressman Torricelli to North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, asked for help in repaying Chang $70 million he said he was owed for grain shipments.

Ted Wells, one of the senator's lawyers, has said the letter appeared to be a routine constituent request. At least 10 other members of Congress reportedly wrote similar letters on Chang's behalf.

A more serious problem facing prosecutors is the credibility of Chang, who would presumably be their star witness. The government, at a hearing last year, pointed out that he had lied about his identity, used three different Social Security numbers and made false statements about his marital status on passport applications.

Torricelli aides describe Chang as a "pathological liar." Lawyers not connected with the case speculate that the leaks of information from the federal investigation may be a sign that prosecutors don't believe they could gain a conviction in court, a view shared by key figures in Torricelli's camp.

The senator himself, following Clinton's playbook, has issued only general denials of the allegations. His Senate spokesman is being kept in the dark on the substance of the case, as were Clinton's press secretaries.

Having attacked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for overzealous prosecution of Clinton, Torricelli is making the same charge in his own case, adding, in Clinton's words, that investigators are engaging in "the politics of personal destruction."

Wells has said that Torricelli has not been informed that he is a "target," a formality that would indicate that an indictment might be forthcoming.

New Jersey is seemingly caught in an epidemic of political corruption charges. The acting Republican governor withdrew from this year's election after questions were raised about past business ventures, and a state Supreme Court Justice recently escaped threatened impeachment.

With about $3 million in his campaign account and a reputation as a formidable fund-raiser, Torricelli would be regarded as all but invincible were it not for the charges swirling about.

"I don't care who the politician is, if there is one Page One headline after another, it's got to have a big impact. But not yet," says Maurice Carroll, whose Quinnipiac University polling unit surveys public opinion in the state. "No politician can survive day after day with this sort of thing - except Bill Clinton."

Still, the reports about Torricelli have not been followed in depth by many voters in the state, where political news travels slowly because of the scarcity of local TV stations.

And Republican campaign officials admit that they don't have a high-profile challenger at the moment. Besides, they say, the election will largely be a referendum on Torricelli in any case.

"It's a surprise, but there's no question that he has become one of the most vulnerable" Senate incumbents, said Mitch Bainwol, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Torricelli has tried to reassure Democrats that he'll retain his seat in the 50-50 Senate. Friends say the combative senator would fight any criminal charges, rather than resign. In a private session with Democratic senators last month, Torricelli likened his situation to the Clinton investigations.

No longer eager for the spotlight, he tried to slip out of the Capitol on a recent afternoon, ducking a cluster of waiting reporters. To one who followed him out the door, the senator expressed confidence that he'd survive the latest attack on his integrity.

"People of good faith will come together and resolve it," he said, predicting an end to the investigation "in another month or two."

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