WASHINGTON – As senators reviewing ethics questions involving Sen. Robert Torricelli near a crucial decision, a lawyer for his imprisoned accuser says the New Jersey Democrat never reimbursed the convicted businessman for gifts.
"Never happened. It's fanciful thinking on [Torricelli's] part," Bradley Simon, the lawyer for David Chang, said Monday.
Chang, a New Jersey businessman now in prison for making illegal campaign donations to Torricelli, says he gave the lawmaker cash and gifts in exchange for the senator's help in business dealings overseas.
A source familiar with Torricelli's defense said Monday theed Chang, making those items legal under Senate rules.
The source said Torricelli contends Chang's allegations about other gifts are fabricated.
Torricelli's statement about reimbursing Chang for some items was first reported Monday by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
The Senate's ban on gifts worth at least $50 makes an exception for "anything for which the member ... pays the market value, or does not use and promptly returns to the donor."
The Senate ethics manual states that a member "may rectify the inadvertent receipt of an impermissible gift by promptly returning it or reimbursing the donor for the full, fair market retail value."
Simon denied that there were any reimbursements.
"But it's a nice try on his part," Simon said of Torricelli. "At this late hour, it's a nice try."
Chang says he bought Torricelli about 12 Italian suits, a cashmere coat, a 42-inch television set, a stereo system, camera equipment, a $9,200 Rolex watch and a Persian rug, and also gave the senator $4,000 to buy a grandfather clock at an antique store in Lambertville, N.J.
The New York Times reported Friday that government investigators turned up sales receipts and have witness testimony and other corroboration of at least two of the alleged gifts, the television and the antique clock.
Chang also alleged he made more than a dozen deliveries of cash to Torricelli's home, each $8,000 to $9,000.
Federal investigators explored Chang's claims during a lengthy criminal investigation that ended in January with no charges against Torricelli. The prosecutor in the case, Mary Jo White, sent material to the Senate ethics committee for a review.
After meeting for nearly three hours Friday with the ethics committee, Torricelli said he never accepted "inappropriate gifts."
Asked about that phrase, he said, "`No inappropriate gifts,' 'no gifts,' 'no illegal gifts' are distinctions without a difference. There simply were no gifts, and I believe the evidence contradicts overwhelmingly the allegations."
Senators were returning to work Monday with plans to recess at week's end for a monthlong August recess. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the ethics panel investigating Torricelli, has made clear that he wants to wrap up the case this week.
The committee has interviewed only Torricelli, although it also has the material forwarded by federal prosecutors.
It has come under pressure not to make Torricelli its only witness. Simon has urged the panel to take Chang's testimony.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said Friday that "it doesn't look good" that the committee might not call any other witnesses, "but I just don't know the details."
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.