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Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., has had a difficult time getting his story straight about why he allowed his girlfriend, sister and aide to accept gifts of expensive earrings – including at least one set of diamond earrings – from a contributor who was seeking Torricelli’s official help in a dispute with the North Korean government.
Through his campaign website, Torricelli even claimed he thought the diamond earrings were worth less than $50.
Under Senate rules, gifts to a senator’s family member, aide or close friend are considered gifts to the senator himself if they are given with the senator’s knowledge and acquiescence. The law prohibits such gifts if they are worth more than $50 and the senator “has reason to believe the gift was given” because of his official position.
David Chang, a major fund-raiser for Torricelli’s 1996 Senate campaign, was seeking Torricelli’s help in a dispute with the North Koreans and in a business deal with the South Korean government. Chang gave earrings to Torricelli’s sister, girlfriend and aide at Torricelli’s house on Christmas Day a few years ago. In a memo filed on May 22 with the Federal District Court in Newark, N.J., Chang’s lawyer said, “Mr. Chang candidly admitted to the government that he expected Torricelli’s help in return for his numerous gifts and contributions.”
After the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee last month officially admonished Torricelli for accepting the earrings and other gifts from Chang, Torricelli’s campaign posted on its website a dubious explanation for why Torricelli had accepted them.
The webpage, entitled “Ethics Matter Closed!”, remained posted on the campaign’s website for at least ten days until it was removed sometime between the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 20, and the afternoon of Wednesday, Aug. 21. A week before its removal, this reporter had asked Torricelli’s Senate office about its content.
Human Events, however, printed and retained a copy of the now-deleted webpage, which claimed that the earrings given by Chang to Torricelli’s girl friend, sister and aide “were believed to be valued under $50 and were disregarded.”
Despite this claim, Torricelli’s Senate spokeswoman, Debra Deshong, confirmed to Human Events that at least one pair of earrings – the pair given to Torricelli’s girlfriend – was in fact a set of diamond earrings.
A brief survey of Washington-area jewelers found that diamond earrings are hard to come by for less than $100 – a figure that one jeweler derisively referred to as “the Wal-Mart kind, for the masses.”
Another Washington-area jeweler said he sells one-carat diamond earrings for more than $8,000. He said that diamonds in a $50 pair of earrings would “have to be the size of a pinhead.” He said that theoretically such a pair of earrings might be found somewhere, but it was highly unlikely.
On the campaign trail, Torricelli offered a completely different explanation for why he accepted the earrings. Before a group of senior citizens in Edison, N.J., he said, “I thought they were part of a Christmas gift exemption.”
But none of the 23 exemptions in the Senate rules covers Christmas or holiday gifts. In any case, Senate rules required that if Torricelli accepted any gift worth more than $50 under one of the listed exemptions he would still have to report it on his Senate financial disclosure statement. Torricelli never reported the earrings.
When asked to clarify Torricelli’s claim that he accepted the earrings under a “Christmas” exemption, his Senate spokeswoman said the gifts were made to the women because of their own personal friendships with Chang.
“They were gifts not to [Torricelli] – they were gifts to people who had pre-existing relationships to Mr. Chang,” she said. Asked whether that meant that Chang had known the women before his relationship with the senator began, Deshong said no, then added, “They knew him for quite some time.”
Torricelli has made other dubious statements about his ethics case. He told the seniors in Edison, for example, that “there was no evidence of wrongdoing found” in the Justice Department investigation of him. In fact, although the department decided in January not to prosecute Torricelli, it forwarded evidence from his case to the Senate Ethics Committee, which – after a highly secretive review of that evidence – voted to “severely admonish” him for accepting gifts in violation of Senate rules and Title I of the Ethics in Government act of 1978.
Moreover, the New York Times has reported that the senator appeared to accept an Oriental rug worth $1,500 that had been paid for by Chang, as well as a $3,600 grandfather clock. The Times published photographic reproductions of the receipts for these alleged gifts.
Torricelli’s spokeswoman refused comment to Human Events on these two alleged gifts, although she confirmed that Torricelli has denied receiving other gifts from Chang, including Italian suits, expensive watches and envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash.
In Edison, Torricelli pleaded ignorance when asked about the violations found by the Senate Ethics Committee. “I didn’t know I was violating Senate rules, but according to their interpretation, I was,” he said.
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