WASHINGTON – The chairman of the ethics panel investigating Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said Thursday he was unaware that Torricelli's chief accuser requested the opportunity to testify in the case.
Asked whether the committee will talk to witnesses other than Torricelli, Sen. Daniel Inouye said, "Who would we interview?"
Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he has not seen a letter sent Monday by the lawyer for David Chang, a one-time Torricelli friend and campaign contributor who has become his chief accuser. "If there's an official letter, we'll act upon it," Inouye said.
The committee is investigating allegations that Torricelli accepted gifts and cash from Chang and, in return, helped Chang with business dealings overseas.
Torricelli denies taking anything from Chang and says the assistance he gave Chang was within the normal boundaries of what a lawmaker does for a constituent. Chang is serving a prison sentence for making illegal donations to Torricelli in 1996.
Chang's lawyer, Bradley Simon, wrote Inouye to urge that the committee seek his client'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.
The committee was meeting Thursday for the first time since its staff spent several hours interviewing Torricelli in private on Monday. Inouye said he had read a transcript of the session.
Torricelli is seeking re-election in November to a second term. Inouye said he would like to see his committee decide by the end of next week whether to continue or conclude its investigation.
Judicial Watch, a Washington watchdog group, also urged the ethics committee to take testimony from Chang, saying its probe thus far "has all the hallmarks of charade."
Torricelli said after Monday's testimony that "it was finally a chance to set the record straight. I'm so relieved it's coming to an end."
The case has become an issue in Torricelli's effort to win a second term. The campaign manager of his Republican opponent, businessman Douglas Forrester, renewed his call Thursday for Torricelli to release the transcript of his testimony to the committee.
Torricelli has said that is a decision for the committee to make.
The Justice Department spent three years investigating Torricelli's relationship with 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.
The criminal probe ended in January with no charges against Torricelli. The lead prosecutor, Mary Jo White, referred materials to the ethics committee for review.
The ethics committee 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 reviewing 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.