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Ruling Could Seal Court Records on Torricelli-Chang Relationship

A news media lawyer on Monday asked a federal appeals court to immediately release a document that describes how an illegal campaign donor helped prosecutors investigate U.S. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli.

A motion filed on behalf of several media organizations said that although they won a ruling Friday ordering that the memo outlining businessman David Chang's cooperation should not be secret, court rules could keep it sealed until after the Nov. 5 election.

Torricelli, D-N.J., is engaged in a tight race against Republican Douglas Forrester, who has made a Senate ethics committee reprimand of Torricelli a central element of his campaign.

Torricelli was never charged in the three-year government investigation, which ended in January. Chang and six others admitted making illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, took no immediate action on the media petition.

The media argued that a delay in making the memo public would undermine confidence in the ruling by a three-judge panel of the court if the judges allowed "discretionary court rules to keep the letter unavailable to the public until after the information in the letter has lost its news value."

The panel on Friday determined that the memo is not subject to grand jury secrecy rules and may be released. The decision reversed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Alfred M. Wolin, of Newark.

Release of the memo was opposed by prosecutors and Torricelli.

The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, which is now handling matters related to the campaign finance probe, had not yet reviewed the media petition and had no immediate response, spokesman Michael Kulstad said Monday.

A message seeking comment from Torricelli lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr. was not immediately returned Monday.

Wolin sentenced Chang to 18 months in federal prison in May after prosecutors certified, in a memo known as a "5K letter," that Chang had provided substantial assistance.

Under court rules, the memo would not become public for at least 45 days from Friday's decision -- putting it at Nov. 4, the day before the election -- or as much as 52 days, said media lawyer Bruce S. Rosen.

"Any of these scenarios would simply be an unconscionable result, both for the parties to this case and the public at large," Rosen wrote in the petition.

"It is further important that the mandate be issued immediately so that the letter's release not come too close to the election, which ensures that the public has the time to fully consider the letter and any response by the senator and any other interested parties," the petition said.

It added that there is little chance that Friday's decision will be reversed on appeal, noting that the unanimous panel found the arguments of prosecutors and Torricelli so meritless, and the matter of access so settled, that it required only a short, four-page opinion to dispose of the matter.

The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Record of Bergen County, WNBC-TV of New York and the American Broadcasting Cos., are seeking the release of the memo. The Star-Ledger of Newark filed papers supporting the request.