It’s been six months since the scandal over Sen. Robert G. Torricelli’s fundraising boiled over and brought the New Jersey Democrat’s political career to an abrupt end, five weeks before Election Day.
But after withdrawing from electoral politics, the Torch found himself with nearly $3 million to burn in his campaign bank account at the end of last year.
Torricelli for U.S. Senate Inc., supposedly still headquartered in downtown Washington, has started doling out some of the funds. On March 13, the campaign committee cut a $2,000 check to Dick Gephardt’s presidential campaign, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Gephardt appears to be the only candidate to whom Torricelli gave money. (Torricelli, however, isn’t the only retired senator whose campaign committee has donated leftover funds to a presidential wannabe. Former Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, who left the Senate in 1999, contributed $1,000 last month to Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.)
Torricelli’s campaign coffers allegedly were stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions during and after his inaugural 1996 campaign. In addition to destroying Torricelli’s career, the scandal landed a campaign contributor in jail.
To avoid the appearance of impropriety, politicians sometimes refund donations from ethically challenged contributors.
Scores of lawmakers last year rushed to cleanse themselves of campaign contributions from Enron and WorldCom executives after the companies’ high-profile implosions. Gephardt, who received thousands of Enron dollars, gave his tainted money to charities and called on his colleagues to do the same.
And Sen. John Edwards’s presidential campaign announced Thursday that it would return $10,000 in contributions to paralegals at an Arkansas law firm after disclosures that their boss had promised to reimburse them, an apparent violation of campaign laws.
But Gephardt’s presidential campaign apparently isn’t concerned that the money from Torricelli might appear dirty.
“Dick and Senator Torricelli have a longstanding relationship dating back to when they served in the House together,” said Gephardt spokeswoman Kim Molstre. “They’ve been friends for a long time.”
Indeed, as House Minority Leader, Gephardt was one of several top Democrats who rallied behind Torricelli. In 2001, Gephardt’s Effective Government Committee contributed $10,000, the maximum amount, to Torricelli’s legal defense fund.
Several prominent Democratic senators — including Minority Leader Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Edward Kennedy, John Breaux and Harry Reid — also contributed money to the defense fund and vocally supported their embattled colleague.
But the four senators who are now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination weren’t among Torricelli’s defenders. And at least one — Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut — joined Republican senators in September 2002 in calling for the release of the transcript of Torricelli’s Senate ethics committee testimony. “We’re always better off when there is more disclosure,” Lieberman was quoted as saying at the time.
Could that explain why Gephardt is the only candidate to whom Torricelli has contributed?
“Maybe this is an indication that Torricelli feels that some of those other Democrats didn’t come to his defense when he was under the gun,” said David Rebovich, managing director of Rider University’s Institute for New Jersey Politics.
Reached in Torricelli’s New Jersey law office, a spokesman said the senator had no comment. The aide said he didn’t know if Torricelli or someone else had decided which candidates would receive Torricelli’s leftover campaign funds.
Torricelli has said he would give money to Democratic candidates nationwide, Molstre said, “and that’s what he did.”
None of Gephardt’s senatorial rivals would openly speculate about why Torricelli wasn’t giving money to his old Senate colleagues, or what they would do if a check from Torricelli showed up in the mail.
One of their campaigns, however, cheerfully pointed out that Gephardt isn’t the only presidential candidate with ties to Torricelli. Matthew Gohd, a former Torricelli fundraiser who reportedly was investigated for his involvement in the 1996 scandal, hosted a fundraiser this month for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s insurgent presidential campaign.
“We’re grateful for his support,” said Dean spokeswoman Dorie Clark. “We’re very comfortable with our fundraising decisions.”
Analysts doubt that connections to Torricelli will taint the Gephardt or Dean campaigns.
“It’s just such inside baseball,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Things like that rarely have an impact.”
— David Enrich is a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C.