WASHINGTON – Just weeks before he was elected to the Senate in 1996, Robert Torricelli was recorded on an FBI wiretap discussing fund-raising over the telephone with supporters at a Florida pizza restaurant under surveillance for ties with organized crime.
The intercepted conversation between Torricelli and two relatives of a convicted Chicago crime figure surprised FBI agents and they alerted the Justice Department. Prosecutors and agents reviewed the tape in the fall of 1996 and concluded there was no reason for further investigation, law enforcement officials said.
But the call received new scrutiny two years later when allegations surfaced about thousands of dollars in illegal donations to Torricelli's campaign, according to officials.
The New Jersey Democrat has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. On Wednesday, Torricelli said that when he hears about allegations against him, "I have to smile to myself, knowing in the end the truth is going to come out."
The operators of the Sarasota, Fla., bakery and pizza shop where the call was intercepted in early September 1996 eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the government of taxes.
In the intercept, three supporters from Chicago, who were visiting the bakery, called and left a message for Torricelli in New Jersey, and the lawmaker returned the call. They discussed the need for donations to fuel his Senate bid down the stretch, according to law enforcement officials, who have listened to the tape or seen its transcript.
At one point, Torricelli makes a comment suggesting he needs individual donations, which by law are limited to $1,000. "Each individual check," the soon-to-be senator is captured as saying, according to officials.
One of the supporters indicates he has raised or plans to donate a few thousand dollars. They also discuss the Chicago area is a potentially good area for a Democrat like Torricelli to raise money, according to the officials.
Among those on the phone call are Chicago-area developers Francis and Sam Roti, a father and son who were nephews of Fred Roti, a colorful Chicago alderman whose association with organized crime ended with his imprisonment in the 1990s for racketeering and extortion.
Sam Roti helped raise money for Torricelli in Illinois, and both he and his father donated a total of $1,500 to the New Jersey Democrat. Sam Roti was indicted on tax charges in 1993 related to an investigation of federal housing grants, but the charges were dropped after only 17 days.
"We donated some to Bob," Sam Roti said in an interview Thursday. "We don't have anything to do with New Jersey and there's no affiliation at all. It was just nice to see an Italian guy. That's all it was."
Francis Roti said he later was asked to appear before a grand jury and was interviewed by prosecutors about his relationship with the Florida pizzeria owners and the donation to Torricelli.
"They (prosecutors) did mention Sen. Torricelli. I don't know exactly what I said. I did contribute to his campaign. They asked, do you know if there was anything. I don't remember the term they used, but it was about money. And I said I was not involved with that," the elder Roti said.
Both Rotis questioned whether they were singled out by authorities because of their uncle's conviction.
Sam Roti said the discussion of money during the intercept was supposed to be lighthearted. "We were in a bakery that my dad had become friendly with -- the guy that runs it -- because he was Italian," he said.
"My dad gets on the phone and starts joking around about there being money here or something. I don't remember exactly what was said. It was one of my dad's off-handed jokes," he said.
Federal Election Commission records show Torricelli's campaign received more than $30,000 in donations in September and October 1996 from donors in the Chicago area.
Guy Ackermann, a Chicago accountant, said he wrote Torricelli a check for $500 around that time as a favor to a friend who knew Sam Roti. Ackermann said he attended a wine-and-cheese reception that Roti held for Torricelli.
After the call was intercepted, the transcript was referred both to the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office and the Justice Department's public integrity division.
Prosecutors and the FBI jointly agreed in the fall of 1996 that the intercept was intriguing but ambiguous, and that there was no reason for further investigation, law enforcement officials said.
But when the Justice Department's campaign task force began receiving information in late 1997 and 1998 about possible illegal donations to Torricelli's campaign, they revisited the transcript, the sources said.
Seven people have pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to Torricelli's 1996 campaign. The FBI also is looking into whether supporters showered Torricelli with improper personal gifts.
A source close to Torricelli said the senator was notified that he had been "coincidentally" intercepted on the wiretap and that his lawyers "inquired and were told there were absolutely no issues involving the senator, including the campaign contributions issue."
Nicholas Castronuovo, who operates the Sarasota pizza and bakery shop, recalled talking briefly to Torricelli on the phone in September 1996. "We exchanged salutations," he said.
Castronuovo said he used to be involved in local New Jersey politics before moving to Florida and "I know Bob." He said one of the Chicago businessmen decided to call the lawmaker.
"He called from here. And when he called, Bob was not in. We left a message that 'when you come in, call your old friend' and he (Torricelli) called here," Castronuovo said.
Castronuovo's lawyer, Thomas Ostrander, said his client's pizza shop was being monitored in 1996 because the FBI thought it was "being visited by big organized crime figures."
Castronuovo, a grandson and a third man involved with the bakery pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiracy to defraud the government on taxes. Castronuovo was sentenced to 24 months' probation, his grandson was sentenced to four months in prison and both were ordered to pay back taxes and cooperate with federal investigators.