WASHINGTON – The chairman of a Senate investigative panel said Friday it is looking into the actions of former Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., in connection with the United Nations oil-for-food program for Iraq.
"We've received allegations about Torricelli and oil-for-food," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. "We take this very seriously. We are pursuing the matter at this point."
Coleman, in a brief telephone interview, declined to say what those allegations were. He said they had been received from the United Nations' Independent Inquiry Committee.
Both Coleman's subcommittee and the U.N. committee are looking into corruption in the $64 billion oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil, provided that most of the money went to buy humanitarian goods. The program was aimed at easing Iraqi suffering under U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The Independent Inquiry Committee found that Saddam exploited oil-for-food by awarding contracts and taking kickbacks from hundreds of companies and individuals.
The investigation into Torricelli was first reported by The Financial Times.
The newspaper, citing Iraqi diplomatic cables and other documents obtained by the Times and Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian business daily, reported that in the 1990s, Torricelli met several times with Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Nizar Hamdoun.
At those meetings, according to the newspaper, Torricelli, then a House member, allegedly urged Iraq to help his campaign donor, David Chang, and Chang's company, Bright & Bright Corp., get oil-for-food contracts.
In 2002, the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Torricelli for accepting improper gifts from Chang, and the senator decided not to seek re-election. Two years earlier, Chang pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and funneling $53,700 in illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign. Chang told investigators that he gave Torricelli cash and gifts in exchange for assistance in his business ventures; Torricelli called the allegations lies.
Torricelli spokesman Sean Jackson confirmed that Torricelli had conversations with the Iraq ambassador, but said the purpose was to argue that U.S.-Iraq relations would improve if American companies participated in the oil-for-food program.
Asked if any specific companies were mentioned in those meetings, Jackson said, "Not to my knowledge."
"All he did was advise that using American companies would help improve relations between the U.S. and Iraq," he continued. "At the time, roughly 65 percent of pharmaceutical and medical supplies were manufactured in New Jersey. Yet American companies were being discriminated against by the Iraqis."
"Everyone associated with this matter acted appropriately and properly," Jackson added.