Torricelli asks special counsel in campaign probe
From Kelli Arena and Jack Date
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, asked the Justice Department Wednesday to appoint a special counsel to take over the criminal investigation of his campaign activities, complaining of media leaks and suggesting the probe has become politicized.
Torricelli's attorney, Ted Wells, sent a letter to the Justice Department, outlining the senator's request and saying that the campaign finance activities under investigation are common and legal.
"We are concerned that the department's view of the law may now change because there is a new administration, and it is expedient to investigate an outspoken Democratic senator in a climate of political uncertainty in the Senate," Wells wrote.
The letter was sent on the same day that Democrats formally took control of the Senate where they hold a razor-thin 50-49 margin, the result of the departure of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont from the GOP to become an independent.
To support his argument for a special counsel, Wells argued that the Justice Department cannot be free of political considerations because of the narrow margin in the Senate, where a turnover of one member could shift control back to Republicans.
The letter referred to what it described as a pattern of leaks about the investigation, resulting in "personal and political damage."
Wells took issue with reports about the use of "soft money" in the senator's 1996 campaign, arguing the practices under investigation were commonly employed by dozens of senators, including former senator and current Attorney General, John Ashcroft, he said.
"Of course, we do not suggest that your campaign broke the law," Wells wrote. "The point is precisely the opposite: While these practices have attracted criticism and FEC review, they were not criminal."
Although Ashcroft has recused himself from the matter, Wells said decisions will be reviewed and approved by high-ranking Justice Department officials, members of a Republican administration, he pointed out.
Given the balance of power in the Senate, Wells questioned whether the public will accept the notion that the department's role will be free of political considerations.
Department officials said Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson would make the decision on a special counsel, given Ashcroft's recusal.
A department official said among the standards to determine the need for a special counsel are whether a criminal investigation of the person is warranted, whether the department's normal litigation procedures present a conflict of interest, and whether appointing a special counsel serves the public interest.
Federal prosecutors are investigating Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign and whether he received illegal campaign donations. The probe began during the Clinton administration.
Businessman David Chang, a former friend, has told prosecutors that Torricelli had knowledge of illegal campaign contributions, sources familiar with the probe have said.
Chang pleaded guilty last summer to making illegal contributions to Torricelli's campaign and to witness tampering in connection with the federal investigation.
Torricelli has previously called the probe "unwarranted" and dismissed Chang as a liar.
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