Sen. Bob Torricelli -- aka "The Torch" -- has become legendary for his fundraising prowess, breaking all soft-money records as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2000. Along the way, he earned a reputation as someone willing to push the legal limits in his pursuit of campaign cash: Seven donors to his 1996 Senate run have pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions, and three of his campaign staff face federal indictment.
He's torched the system for years, but now the system may be close to turning the tables.
Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that Torricelli accepted an array of pricey gifts in exchange for political favors from David Chang, who last June pled guilty to illegally funneling $53,700 to Torricelli's campaign.
The millionaire commodities broker claims that since the mid-'90s he has showered the senator with cash and high-end items including an $8,100 Rolex watch, bean-shaped cufflinks from Tiffany, a big-screen TV and expensive Italian suits. No mention how many frequent briber miles Chang has racked up, but I'm guessing he's got Platinum status by now.
At a press conference last week, Torricelli, protesting that he has "never done anything at any time to betray the trust of the people," implied that Chang's claims have been fabricated out of whole cloth. And now it looks like the fate of the man who's considering running for president in 2008 may hang on the testimony of a Korean tailor, Chang Hwan Choi.
Choi told the press that in 1997 he was taken by David Chang to the home of a man called "John" to take his measurements. Over the next two years, he made 10 suits for "John" and charged them to Chang's American Express card ("American Express: Don't bribe a politician without it").
Asked by the FBI if "John" was, in fact, Torricelli, as Chang claims, the tailor said he couldn't recall "John's" face but remembered he wore a size 40 regular suit, with the sleeves shortened, and was fond of pinstripes and French cuffs. It may be just a coincidence, but "Bob," too, wears a sleeve-shortened 40 regular and also has an affinity for pinstripes and French cuffs.
I can just picture the climactic moment of a Torricelli bribery trial. The defendant is forced to stand while the tailor kneels between his legs and, with a flourish worthy of an Italian opera buffa, pulls out a tape measure, checks the pugnacious senator's inseam, and cries out in Korean: "He's the one!" Filled with the spirit of Johnnie Cochran, the prosecutor leaps to his feet and shouts to the jury: "If the measurements jibe, he took the bribe!" and "If the cuffs are French, you can smell the stench!"
Maybe the prospect of just such a moment is what forced Torricelli, at the same time he was slamming Chang's assertions as "outrageous and irresponsible," to also take great pains to work in the warm nature of his relationship with his accuser. "David Chang was my friend," he told reporters and reiterated it moments later: "For several years, David Chang and I enjoyed a friendship."
Is this part of a Torricelli attempt to wriggle though a loophole in the federal gratuity law by mounting the Friendship Defense? You see, federal law bars public officials from receiving gifts worth more than $50 -- unless they were given by a "personal friend."
Now, Webster's defines a friend as "one attached to another by affection or esteem." So one wonders what exactly was the basis of this "friendship"? Mutual esteem for Giorgio Armani? A shared affection for French cuffs, ostentatious watches and bean-shaped cuff links? The simple pleasure of getting together and watching the hometown Nets and Devils play on a 52-inch Mitsubishi?
The pair first met in 1995, when Chang approached then-Rep. Torricelli looking for help getting his hands on $71 million he believed the North Korean government owed him. They hit it off right away, and soon Torricelli was hitting up Chang for donations to his Senate campaign and phoning the Justice Department on his behalf.
After being elected to the Senate, Torricelli personally lobbied the president of South Korea in an effort to help Chang buy one of that country's largest insurance companies. He even brought his pal along to a meeting with the South Korean finance minister -- an act that so disturbed the U.S. ambassador, he ended up apologizing to the minister.
But after all, if the Torch were successful in helping Chang, Chang would have more money -- I mean, friendship -- to share. Thus are bosom buddies born.
Indeed, it appears that Torricelli is a regular Dale Carnegie when it comes to Making Friends and Influencing Their Checkbooks. Fifty-nine of the senator's charitable chums have donated $265,000 to his legal defense fund -- with 14 of his best buds ponying up the maximum allowable contribution of $10,000.
Torricelli must be one great guy to hang out with -- and he clearly gets around. Among those chipping in the max were close personal friends from across the land, including an insurance exec from Texas, a casino exec from Vegas, a show biz mogul from Hollywood and a real estate magnate from New York.
Multibillion-dollar abuses of the political system have become so commonplace that the American public is sadly inured to them. But a spicy story like this one, filled with delicious details, can break through the sleaze fatigue and capture the public's imagination -- with Bob "The Torch" Torricelli as the well-dressed poster boy for the corruption of our democracy.