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Friday, August 24, 2007

Now a Lobbyist, an Ex-Senator Uses Campaign Money

Now a Lobbyist, an Ex-Senator Uses Campaign Money

By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ and DAVID W. CHEN - August 24 - New York Times

When he was last running for the United States Senate from New Jersey in 2002, Robert G. Torricelli collected donations from thousands of people who apparently wanted to see him re-elected. They might be surprised to see how he spent a portion of their money.

Mr. Torricelli, a Democrat who was one of the Senate’s most flamboyant personalities and prodigious fund-raisers, abruptly quit the 2002 race amid allegations of ethical misconduct and became a lobbyist. Since then, he has given $4,000 from his campaign fund to Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress, $10,000 to Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois and more than $40,000 to Nevada Democratic Party organizations and candidates linked to the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid.

All of those politicians had one thing in common: influence over Mr. Torricelli’s, or his clients’, business interests.

In early 2006, for instance, Mr. Torricelli contributed $10,000 from his Senate account to the mayor of Trenton and his slate of City Council candidates, just as city agencies were reviewing an ultimately successful proposal by the former senator to develop retail and office space in the city.

There is no evidence that Mr. Torricelli, who declined to be interviewed for this article, violated federal rules, which allow retired officials to give leftover campaign funds to charities, candidates and political parties. Sean Jackson, Mr. Torricelli’s campaign treasurer and a partner in his lobbying firm, said in an interview that any suggestion that the contributions were tied to his business interests was “ridiculous.” He said that Mr. Torricelli contributed to people he knew or with whom he shared policy goals.

“Bob has supported people who he believes in, and he doesn’t regret doing it,” Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Torricelli had more campaign money, $2.9 million, than any other senator who has retired in the last 20 years, except John Edwards, who is running for president, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.

In all, he has spent almost $900,000 from his account since leaving Congress, much of it on gifts to charities and nonprofit organizations like hospitals as well as political campaigns and parties. At least $65,000 went to politicians, or organizations linked to them, that had influence over business interests of Mr. Torricelli or his clients.

Campaign finance watchdogs say Mr. Torricelli’s spending raises questions about federal regulations dictating how former politicians can spend unused campaign contributions.

The rules prohibit former officials from using their leftover campaign money for personal expenses. And although Mr. Torricelli has not done that, campaign finance watchdogs say he seems to have found a legal wrinkle to spend those funds in ways that could buttress his private business. His case, they say, underscores the need to tighten the rules.

Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, said Mr. Torricelli could have considered giving the money back to donors or to charity. “Contributors should reasonably expect that their money will go for campaigning and not that it will sit in an account for years and be doled out to build someone’s personal business,” he said.

A day after being asked about Mr. Torricelli’s spending from his Senate account, Mr. Jackson called The New York Times to say that the bulk of the remaining money would go to a foundation that Mr. Torricelli had established earlier this year to help causes like breast cancer awareness and open space preservation.

Mr. Torricelli quit the 2002 race in October of that year, several weeks after the Senate Ethics Committee issued a letter “severely admonishing” him for accepting three gifts from a contributor, David Chang.

Two months after leaving the race, Mr. Torricelli founded a lobbying practice, Rosemont Associates, which now has clients including the government of Taiwan and the owner of Cablevision.

The business has taken him far beyond New Jersey. In February 2005, Aveta Holdings L.L.C., of Hackensack, which provides managed care to Medicare recipients in Puerto Rico and other places, hired his firm for $10,000 a month as it was moving to acquire a managed care company that served Medicare recipients on the island, according to a copy of his contract. He was to build support for the company and meet with political leaders on its behalf.

In May 2006, Mr. Torricelli made two contributions totaling $4,000 from his Senate campaign account to Luis G. Fortuno, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of Congress. Three weeks later, executives with Aveta Holdings and their relatives made donations of $12,000 to Mr. Fortuno’s campaign committee.

Mr. Fortuno’s office said that he advocated an approach that would foster competition in the Medicare program by allowing more companies to participate. Federal regulators eventually adopted such an approach, the office said. Mr. Torricelli, in turn, dropped in on Mr. Fortuno this year to thank him for his efforts, according to a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Mr. Jackson said that Mr. Torricelli’s donations to Mr. Fortuno had nothing to do with Aveta, and were made because he, like Mr. Fortuno, has long supported Puerto Rican statehood. Contributors to Mr. Fortuno connected to Aveta did not return phone calls to their offices and homes. Aveta’s chairman, Daniel E. Straus, also declined to comment.

Mr. Torricelli has also tapped his campaign account to make sizable donations to Nevada politicians, including several Democrats close to Senator Reid. In 2003, $25,000 from the Torricelli for U.S. Senate account was given to Silver State Victory 2004, the committee coordinating the Democratic effort in Nevada that year.

Then in October 2004, he gave $10,000 to the Nevada State Democratic Party, of which Mr. Reid is the titular head. The same month Mr. Torricelli also gave $250 to Josh Reid, the senator’s son, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.

Shortly afterward, Mr. Torricelli began reaching out to Mr. Reid on behalf of a client that retained him for $15,000 a month: the government of Taiwan. On Feb. 2, 2005, before contacting any other senator, Mr. Torricelli called Mr. Reid to set up a meeting with Taiwan’s representative in the United States, according to federal lobbying records, to discuss Taiwan’s opposition to a new Chinese law that authorized the use of force if Taiwan declared independence.

By February 2007, Mr. Torricelli had contacted Mr. Reid or his staff some two dozen times about Taiwan’s interests, going beyond what he did with other Democratic Senators, the records show.

A spokesman for Mr. Reid said that it was unfair to single out the donations that Mr. Torricelli made in Nevada, given that the state was drawing significant attention from Democrats around the country who viewed its role as crucially important in the presidential election.

Mr. Jackson said Mr. Torricelli’s donations to Mr. Reid stemmed from their long relationship, not his lobbying on Taiwan.

“It would be surprising — it would be amazing — if he didn’t support Harry Reid,” Mr. Jackson said.

Money has gone elsewhere. On Oct. 29, 2003, Governor Blagojevich of Illinois made a fund-raising trip to New York and had a private meeting with Mr. Torricelli and Leonard Barrack, whose law firm, Barrack, Rodos & Bacine, had hired the former senator as a consultant, according to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Five days after the meeting, Mr. Torricelli and the firm itself each gave $10,000 to Mr. Blagojevich’s reelection campaign account, according to campaign disclosure reports. (Mr. Torricelli drew on his Senate campaign account for his donation.)

On Feb. 20, 2004, the law firm was placed on the Illinois State Teachers Retirement System’s list of preferred outside attorneys, according to a spokeswoman for the state fund.

The retirement system’s board of trustees decides who is placed on that list, not the governor. But the governor appoints 4 of the 11 members of the board.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Blagojevich said that the governor’s office was unable to comment on the meeting because she did not have access to the governor’s campaign schedule and it appeared to be part of a campaign-related trip. Mr. Jackson said that Mr. Torricelli does not recall meeting Mr. Blagojevich.

As a lobbyist in Trenton, Mr. Torricelli counted his biggest client in 2006 as CSC Holdings, the operator of Cablevision, which paid him $162,000 that year. In early 2006, Mr. Torricelli’s firm was lobbying state regulators to seek changes in a bill sponsored by State Senator Joseph V. Doria Jr., a Democrat, that would have allowed telephone companies like Verizon, a chief rival of Cablevision’s, to provide pay television service.

In May, Mr. Torricelli contributed $5,000 from his Senate campaign account to a slate of municipal candidates headed by Mr. Doria, who is also the mayor of Bayonne. Eventually, the bill passed, but Cablevision succeeded in weakening some provisions, according to lobbyists in Trenton.

Mr. Doria did not return a call last week seeking more information about the law. Mr. Jackson said that Mr. Torricelli has supported Mr. Doria for years.

Mr. Torricelli has also given contributions from his campaign account as he has pursued real estate deals in his home state.

In September 2005, Mr. Torricelli purchased the Golden Swan, a boarded-up historic building situated a couple of blocks from the State House in Trenton, for $1 from the City of Trenton, according to real estate records. Mr. Torricelli and Trenton’s mayor, Douglas H. Palmer, were signatories. Mr. Torricelli then began investing at least $3 million in restoring the building.

But he needed city approvals. In the spring of 2006, Mr. Torricelli contributed $10,000 from his Senate campaign account to Mr. Palmer, and his slate of City Council candidates for the June municipal election.

Those donations came as city agencies, including the Council, were reviewing Mr. Torricelli’s proposal for the Golden Swan, which called for the creation of retail and office space in the building. That fall, the Council, including Mr. Palmer’s slate, gave Mr. Torricelli an $89,000 grant to install an elevator in another building he was developing in Trenton’s downtown. This March, the Council also approved a state loan application for the Golden Swan.

“It’s not like if you give me money, you’re going to get stuff — it doesn’t work like that,” Mr. Palmer said. Mr. Jackson said: “If anything, Torricelli did something to help people and the city.”

Margot Williams contributed reporting.

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