New Jersey’s embattled Sen. Robert Torricelli on Wednesday angrily denied that he had improperly accepted money and gifts from a political supporter, and swore to prove his innocence in the face of a mounting federal investigation.
"I do not deserve this treatment, and I will fight for my reputation," Torricelli said in a three-minute statement delivered in the lobby of a downtown office building that houses his local office.
Torricelli, chairman of Senate Democrats' political and fund-raising arm during the 2000 election cycle, has been the unofficial subject of an FBI investigation since 1997, when agents looked into illegal contributions to the Democratic congressman’s 1996 campaign. Since then, the chief witness against the senator has proved to be his onetime friend, businessman David Chang.
On Wednesday, The New York Times cited sources close to the investigation who said that even after joining the Senate in 1997, Torricelli accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and a trove of gifts from Chang, who last June pleaded guilty to giving $53,700 in illegal donations to Torricelli’s campaign.
Those allegations are now the thrust of the investigation headed by the office of the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.
In his press conference, Torricelli called Chang "every elected official's worst nightmare."
According to the Times, Chang gave cash for vacations and shopping sprees; at least 10 Italian-made suits; an $8,100 Rolex watch; bean-shaped cuff links from Tiffany & Co.; a $1,500 rug; $600 earrings for one of Torricelli's former girlfriends; and a 52-inch television. Chang also said Torricelli asked him to make payments on a Mercedes sedan, but that the senator changed his mind when he found a sales manager at the dealership knew of his involvement. In return, Chang alleged, he was to receive help in international business deals.
Torricelli did not discuss the allegations brought up in the Times article, saying only that his lawyers "agreed to have an open dialogue" with the federal prosecutors heading up the probe.
Marvin Smilon, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, said he could not comment on the case.
Store records, bank records and witness accounts corroborate accusations about at least some of the gifts, sources told the Times.
On Sunday, Torricelli told NBC’s Meet the Press that federal investigators had recently searched his Englewood, N.J., home, but he said that it was in the spirit of his full cooperation with the probe.
Federal law and congressional ethics rules prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts worth $50 or more, with a $100 annual limit from any individual source. But lawmakers must list all gifts exceeding $100 on their annual financial disclosure forms, and Torricelli has never included any gifts from Chang other than a $5,000 donation to a legal defense fund Torricelli created for an unrelated case.
On Meet the Press, Torricelli said an emphasis in politics on raising big sums of money has helped create an environment ripe for problems.
"These campaigns and the rush to raise so much money bring you in touch with so many people you don't really know," he said.