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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2002 / 26 Teves 5762

Philip Terzian

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The Torch is passed -- SEN. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, who succeeded Bill Bradley in the Senate, is famous for his tart tongue, and sharp practices. He is also not above a little rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

A few years ago, when his colleague Fred Thompson of Tennessee was looking into illegal Chinese contributions to the Clinton presidential campaign, Senator Torricelli stopped the hearings cold with his assertion that Mr. Thompson's pointed questions to Chinese business types revived chilling memories of watching another "ambitious senator from Tennessee" going after the Mafia in the early postwar years, deeply traumatizing young Robert and other members of the Torricelli clan. Senator Thompson was obliged to halt and explain that he had not chosen his witnesses based on their ethnic profile, but on their circumvention of the law. And few noticed that the hearings on organized crime that so disturbed young Torricelli took place before his birth.

Now "the Torch," as he is not-so-affectionately known, is at it again. The Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Mary Jo White, decided last week not to prosecute Senator Torricelli for various crimes, including bribery and influence-peddling, because her case was largely reliant on one strategic witness, businessman David Chang, who has been convicted of violating campaign-finance laws. It was Ms. White's belief that, given a choice between the word of a "convicted felon" and a United States Senator, a jury was likely to lean in Mr. Torricelli's favor.

That is, as they say, a judgment call, and the Bush administration (which inherited the case) has accepted Mary Jo White's decision as "prosecutorial discretion." Republicans are unhappy about this, partly because Mary Jo White has a history of going easy on malefactors within her own party, especially union bosses with dubious financial ties to the Democrats; and largely because they think Senator Torricelli is guilty as charged.

They are also more than a little annoyed by the politics of the case. It was first revealed that Senator Torricelli wrote letters, made introductions, arranged meetings and lobbied his colleagues on behalf of Mr. Chang -- in exchange for some $50,000 in cash and gifts, including Italian suits, Rolex watches, a large-screen TV and compact stereo -- during the Clinton administration, which kept its distance from the Torch and referred the case to Mary Jo White. But when Clinton left office, and John Ashcroft took up residence in the Justice Department, this became (in the words of Senate Democrats) a partisan vendetta -- "Republican justice," as they put it -- against a prominent Democrat.

When Ms. White decided not to prosecute, there were no words of thanks to the Bush administration for its even-handedness, or apologies to Mr. Ashcroft and his deputy Lawrence Thompson. But there was plenty of gloating among his Democratic colleagues about how Mr. Torricelli was now a cinch for re-election in the fall, and how this talented and articulate freshman senator is a future leader of his party.

They may well be right. But at what cost? Before leaving office this week, Ms. White referred the Torricelli case to the Senate Ethics Committee for action. This is, of course, the procedural equivalent of offering a temporary burial: The ethics committee proceeds at a notably glacial pace, and is not likely to render judgment, or even look very hard at the facts, until Mr. Torricelli has been safely re-elected in November.

But as a specimen of political theatre, it will be instructive to watch. The chairman of the Ethics Committee is Harry Reid of Nevada who, as majority whip, enjoys a one-vote advantage in the Senate. He knows that if his colleagues should take an impartial (and timely) look at the junior senator from New Jersey it is likely to jeopardize his party's control of the chamber. Three years after impeachment, the Democrats are in the uncomfortable position of arguing that conduct that is not demonstrably illegal beyond a reasonable doubt cannot possibly be unethical.

The last time the Senate took action against one of its own it compelled Robert Packwood of Oregon to resign his seat. Mr. Packwood, it will be remembered, was accused of sexual harassment: Smooching staff aides in his office, pinching the occasional bottom, and bragging to his diary about his status as Lothario. Mr. Torricelli is accused of accepting bribes, influence-peddling, violating the campaign-finance laws, and lying publicly about the facts of his case.

If the Senate should decide that a serial kisser is a deeper disgrace to the world's greatest deliberative body than a statesman who takes cash in return for favors, then it deserves to have Robert G. Torricelli in its midst, and the Democrats ought to catapult him to the leadership straightaway.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal