In a setback for Sen. Robert Torricelli's efforts to fend off an ongoing federal probe of his financial dealings, the Justice Department on Friday rejected the lawmaker's request to turn the investigation over to a special counsel.
Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars in illegal gifts from a campaign contributor, had sought the appointment of a special counsel. He argued that it was impossible for the Republican-led Justice Department to conduct an impartial investigation, especially given the one-seat majority Democrats have in the Senate.
But in a letter to Torricelli's attorney released Friday, the Justice Department said the lawmaker's charge that its probe might be colored by partisan politics "is simply wrong" and that a special counsel "would not be warranted."
The letter was signed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Larry D. Thompson. He is overseeing the matter because Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a former Republican senator from Missouri, has recused himself from the case.
Torricelli's attorney, Ted Wells, issued a statement sharply criticizing the Justice Department for denying the request.
Even though the investigation is being conducted by New York prosecutors, Wells said, "the ultimate decision whether to bring any charges will be made by high-ranking Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., who are part of the new Republican administration."
"Given the delicate balance of power in the Senate," Wells continued, "we believe it would have been in the public interest to appoint a special counsel from outside the Department of Justice."
Torricelli requested the special counsel earlier this month as the Democrats were taking the Senate helm following the decision by Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords to bolt the Republican Party and become an independent. Torricelli is up for reelection in 2002, and the outcome of that race could be crucial to future control of the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) also criticized the Justice Department.
"I am disappointed in the department's decision," Daschle said. "Sen. Torricelli and others have expressed reasonable concerns that the department's continuing supervision of this investigation presents, at a minimum, the appearance of a potential conflict of interest."
An aggressive lawmaker known on Capitol Hill as "The Torch," Torricelli served in the House from 1982 to 1996, when he was elected to the Senate. His career was on the rise after his successful stint as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last year, where he was widely credited with guiding Democrats to key gains in last fall's election--including the defeat of Ashcroft.
But Torricelli's rising clout has been dashed by accusations that he took illegal gifts, ranging from watches to Italian suits, from David Chang, a New Jersey businessman and major contributor to the senator's 1996 campaign.
Chang, who has pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions and is cooperating with prosecutors, has provided them with information about favors he says he received from Torricelli. In one instance, Torricelli accompanied Chang on a trip to South Korea and lobbied government officials there to grant favorable consideration to a Chang business deal, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Torricelli, who is running for reelection this year, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has complained bitterly that he is being subjected to a damaging campaign of media leaks by investigators. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) joined other Democratic lawmakers Friday in condemning the leaks and calling for an investigation to determine their source.
A federal judge in Newark, N.J., after reviewing 20 newspaper articles cited by Torricelli, found in a ruling unsealed last week that the senator failed to prove there had been illegal leaks of grand jury material.
Legal experts had considered Torricelli's request for a special counsel a longshot.
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.