Senate Ethics Panel Admonishes Torricelli

Embattled Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey was "severely admonished" by the Senate Ethics Committee Tuesday for accepting gifts from a campaign contributor and businessman that the lawmaker aided.

The allegations against Torricelli have figured prominently in the campaign of Republican Douglas Forrester, who hopes to oust the first-term lawmaker this fall.

Torricelli quickly accepted the committee's findings and, in a contrite statement on the Senate floor, apologized for "lapses of judgment."

"I want my colleagues in the Senate to know that I agree with the committee's conclusions, fully accept their findings and take full personal responsibility," he said.

But he maintained his longstanding position that he never knowingly accepted an illegal gift.

Forrester's campaign manager, Bill Pascoe, said the committee's findings show Torricelli "was not telling the truth throughout this entire investigation."

Before being admonished Torricelli was already one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. Polls indicated that only about 38 percent of N.J. voters were prepared to re-elect him.

The admonishment ends a long-running probe of Torricelli's relationship with David Chang, a businessman who at one time was one of the nation's most generous political donors.

The Justice Department spent three years investigating the case before closing the inquiry in January with no charges against Torricelli. But the lead prosecutor, Mary Jo White, referred materials to the Ethics Committee for a review.

Chang is now in prison for making illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 campaign.

Chang said Torricelli demanded donations and expensive gifts in exchange for assisting him in business ventures in North and South Korea. Torricelli said he never accepted gifts from Chang or gave him assistance outside the bounds of what lawmakers do for constituents.

In a three-page letter to Torricelli, the ethics committee wrote, "Your actions and failure to act led to violations of Senate rules -- and related statutes -- and created at least the appearance of impropriety."

Torricelli, 50, was told by the ethics panel that his acceptance of a television and stereo CD system from Chang after paying him less than the retail value "evidenced poor judgment [and] displayed a lack of due regard for Senate rules."

Torricelli, in a brief interview, insisted that he believed he was fully reimbursing Chang for the cost of the system.

The panel also said Torricelli's acceptance as a loan from Chang of bronze statues of an eagle and a bronco buster for display in his office violated Senate rules and public disclosure requirements.

It also cited gifts of earrings from Chang to Torricelli's sister, an employee and a friend in the lawmaker's home at Christmas as violating Senate rules. The committee ruled that Torricelli must compensate Chang for money he spent on the television, the CD player and the earrings, plus "appropriate interest."

The committee also declared it was "troubled by incongruities, inconsistencies and conflicts, particularly concerning actions taken by you which were or could have been of potential benefit" to Chang.

The chairman of the six-person ethics panel that handled the Torricelli matter, Democrat Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, said the letter was approved unanimously. The other committee members were Democrats 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.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said he was pleased with the committee's actions.

"It is now clear from the committee's extensive review and findings that the sensational allegations made against Senator Torricelli by Mr. Chang have been proven false and without foundation," Daschle, D-S.D., said in a statement.

The letter was among the reprimands the Ethics Committee could mete out without seeking the consent of the full Senate. Under Senate ethics rules, the committee may issue a public or private letter of admonition after a preliminary inquiry that uncovers an inadvertent or technical violation.

The letter is less severe than disciplinary action by the full Senate, which could have included censure, expulsion or a recommended reduction in the lawmaker's seniority or positions of responsibility.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, in a statement, said the committee found that Torricelli "believed that he had complied with applicable Senate rules, even if he did not meet in all respects their requirements."

"The time has come to put this matter behind us," Daschle said.

The Senate panel's action follows a vote last week by the House expelling former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, after he was convicted by a federal jury of taking bribes and kickbacks from businessmen and congressional employees. Traficant began serving an eight-year prison sentence Tuesday.

In his speech in a near-empty Senate chamber, Torricelli said, "During recent weeks I have spent long nights tormented by the question of how I could have allowed such lapses of judgment to compromise all that I have fought to build. It might take a lifetime to answer that question to my own satisfaction."

His spokeswoman, Debra DeShong, said the committee in effect dismissed Chang's most sensational allegations, including that he gave Torricelli thousands of dollars in cash on numerous occasions.

Bradley Simon, the attorney for Chang, expressed disappointment that the committee limited its findings to the few items. "I don't feel the letter really portrays the full extent of what took place here," Simon said.

Only three senators were in the chamber to hear Torricelli's apology: Assistant Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Reid normally chairs the Ethics Committee but stepped aside fro the Torricelli inquiry because he had earlier given $500 to Torricelli's legal defense fund.

The three sat quietly as Torricelli read his apology from a lectern at his Senate desk. After reading his apology, Torricelli shook Hatch's hand as the Republican walked over and gave him a half hug.

The New Jersey Democrat then walked to Reid, spoke to him briefly, shook his hand and patted him on the shoulder.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.