WASHINGTON – Sen. Robert Torricelli testified before an ethics panel Monday that is probing allegations that he accepted gifts and cash from a campaign contributor and, in return, helped the contributor with business dealings overseas.
Torricelli said he spent several hours discussing the case with staff members from the Senate ethics committee.
"It's finally my turn," Torricelli, D-N.J., said after the session ended. "After dealing with these false allegations for so long, it was finally a chance to set the record straight. I'm so relieved it's coming to an end."
The meeting was conducted behind closed doors in an undisclosed location. The ethics committee has a policy of not commenting on ongoing inquiries.
The investigation is entering the home stretch at a particularly sensitive time for Torricelli, who is in a spirited race for re-election.
His Republican opponent, Douglas Forrester, has called on Torricelli to make public his testimony to the ethics committee. Torricelli said that is a question for the committee to decide.
"The important thing is that every allegation is reviewed and all the documents analyzed so this ends without any lingering questions in anyone's mind," Torricelli said.
The Justice Department spent three years investigating Torricelli's relationship with David Chang, a businessman who at one time was one of the nation's most generous political donors.
Chang said Torricelli demanded donations and expensive gifts in exchange for assisting him in recouping $71 million he was owed for grain shipped to the North Korean government and in buying a bankrupt South Korean insurance company.
Torricelli said he never accepted gifts from Chang or gave him assistance outside the bounds of what lawmakers do for constituents.
Chang pleaded guilty in June 2000 to obstructing justice and funneling $53,700 in illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison after cooperating with prosecutors.
The criminal probe ended in January with no charges against Torricelli. But the lead prosecutor, Mary Jo White, referred materials to the ethics committee for review.
Chang remains willing to meet with the ethics committee but has not been invited to do so.
His lawyer, Bradley Simon, sent a letter Monday urging Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the Democrat who is leading ethics probe, to seek Chang's input.
"In order to fulfill its public responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation, I believe it is essential for the committee to take Mr. Chang's testimony," Simon wrote.
Torricelli's spokeswoman, Debra DeShong, said: "The spectacle of a convicted felon with a history of perjury traveling from a federal penitentiary to the United States Senate would make a mockery of the process."
The ethics committee investigates alleged violations of the law or Senate rules, plus any other improper conduct that reflects poorly upon the Senate.
It can dismiss a case or, in cases of inadvertent or technical violations, issue a public or private letter of admonition. In more severe cases, it can recommend that the full Senate expel or censure a member.
The senators weighing the Torricelli matter are Democrats Inouye, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and Republicans Pat Roberts of Kansas, George Voinovich of Ohio and Craig Thomas of Wyoming.
Torricelli continues to raise money for a legal defense fund he established in December 2000. As of June 30, the fund had raised about $1.95 million and spent some $1.75 million on legal costs.
Torricelli was the subject of a new allegation last week when a witness at a hearing of the House ethics committee claimed his company, U.S. Aerospace Group, gave Torricelli expensive gifts and trips on its corporate jet.
The witness, Richard Detore, made the allegation while testifying at a hearing into bribery and fraud allegations against Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio. Detore was indicted with Traficant in 2001 and is awaiting trial on bribery charges.
Detore told a reporter that he saw receipts from the company's American Express card for a $100,000 necklace and $30,000 earrings bought at Neiman Marcus, which he believed were given to a woman Mr. Torricelli was dating.
Torricelli's office dismissed Detore's claim and a lawyer for John J. Cafaro, who owned the now-defunct company, called Detore's allegation "totally unfounded."
The New York Times reported that a Justice Department official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said evidence uncovered by federal investigators confirmed that the jewelry bought with the American Express card was given to Mr. Cafaro's wife.