'Torch' Feels the Heat: Under Investigation, Torricelli Pushes Finance Reform

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To visitors in the Senate gallery last Wednesday morning who didn't know any better, Bob Torricelli probably sounded like the voice of reform. "There is an endless spiral of fund-raising that is out of control," said the pugnacious New Jersey Democrat, offering an amendment to the McCain-Feingold-Cochran campaign-finance bill that is scheduled for a historic vote this week. But in a Newark courtroom that afternoon, Torricelli's image looked considerably less heroic. A federal judge sentenced former Bergen County Republican chairman Berek Don to five months in jail for ignoring partisan affiliations and helping his client, commodities broker David Chang, illegally funnel $11,000 through straw donors to Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign.

No one in Congress these days is a more ironic champion of campaign-finance reform than "The Torch." Nicknamed for his aggressive and abrasive style, Torricelli broke records last year as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising $103.5 million that helped lift his party into a 50-50 tie with the GOP. That followed his 1996 jump from the House to the Senate, when he amassed $10 million to replace the retiring Bill Bradley. Torricelli sees himself as belonging not just to New Jersey, but to history. He invoked Lech Walesa when he announced for the Senate ("We either walk the path before us or scale the shipyard wall") and has had his eye on bigger things--possibly a run for the White House in 2008 after a second Senate term.

But Torricelli could be consumed by the fund-raising beast he's helped to create. The investigation into Don, which began in 1997, helped to trigger a federal probe of Torricelli's 1996 campaign that is now reaching a critical juncture. So far, six people, including Chang, have pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions. In January prosecutors issued "target letters" to three young Torricelli aides warning that they could soon face criminal charges. The problem lies not just with the original transgressions--the questionable contributions (including use of Chang's private plane and an unpaid hotel catering bill) amount to about $60,000--but a possible cover-up. The government is looking at allegations by Chang that Torricelli or those around him obstructed justice by pressuring him not to cooperate with the investigation. …