Ballot Box

The Torch Flames Out

In recent days, the New York Times’ investigation of Robert Torricelli has focused on the New Jersey senator’s relationship with David Chang, a corrupt businessman from South Korea who is now facing a jail sentence. The first story that appeared last week reported that Chang and an assistant of Chang’s have told federal prosecutors that they gave Torricelli gifts, including 10 Italian suits, an $8,100 wristwatch, cufflinks, earrings for his then-girlfriend, a TV set, and payments of $25,000 and $10,000. A second story followed a few days later with the even more jaw-dropping allegation that the New Jersey senator stood to earn a $10 million commission if Chang succeeded in his effort to buy a gigantic insurance company from the South Korean government for $1.5 billion.

If Torricelli falls in this scandal, Democrats can forget about their Strom deathwatch. Control of the Senate will be beyond their grasp until 2002. But what should be most alarming about the episode to all sides is that it marks a departure from the familiar campaign finance sleaze we’ve grown accustomed to. This is B-movie, Tammany Hall, cash-in-a-bag corruption of a kind we haven’t seen in a long time. The second story presents compelling evidence of the elusive “quo” element of the quid pro quo. Torricelli actually took Chang to a meeting with the finance minister of South Korea in Seoul in 1999–when Chang was already under investigation for giving Torricelli illegal campaign contributions. According to diplomatic cables unearthed by the Times, Torricelli requested the meeting to discuss political and economic issues and then seized the opportunity to lobby for Chang. The American ambassador was so stunned by Chang’s presence in the meeting and Torricelli’s behavior that he apologized to the Korean finance minister. On the scale of Torricelli’s alleged misdeeds, it barely registers that he baldy lied about this incident–as he has about much else–by saying he never discussed Chang’s business interests with Korean officials. 

The authors of these articles, Tim Golden and David Kocieniewski, bury some of the astonishing detail they have unearthed, such as the cash in envelopes allegedly delivered to the senator’s house in Englewood, New Jersey. It’s as if they can’t believe what they’ve discovered. It is indeed hard to fathom. Modern corruption in Washington takes more subtle forms–insider stock deals (of the kind Torricelli has taken in the past) or generous lobbying contracts after leaving the government. The last time cash bribery brought down a sitting senator was in 1980 when Harrison Williams, also of New Jersey, was indicted in the ABSCAM scandal. Even then, the handing over of actual loot seemed almost comically anachronistic.

As a legal matter, Torricelli is presumed innocent. As a practical matter, what we know he did is enough that he ought to resign, whether or not he deserves to go to jail. Torricelli has admitted that he did not go to the authorities when Chang tried to buy him a Mercedes, a bribe he apparently turned down when he got worried that the auto dealer knew who Chang was buying the car for. Yesterday, Torricelli improved on what had been only blanket denials by telling reporters that he took no “illegal gifts.” Parse this Clintonian phrasing, and you can glimpse the outlines of his legal defense. OK, maybe he did receive some stuff from Chang. But those gifts weren’t illegal because Chang was a friend at the time, and you can’t prove Torricelli did anything in exchange for them. 

Leaks from the Justice Department suggest that these questions will be settled in court. Unless these allegations turn out to be a complete fantasy, however, Torricelli will leave behind a human mystery: How could he turn out to be such a stupid crook? I yield to few in my dislike of the Torch, a preening loudmouth of a politician if ever there was one. But he is not dumb, and people who know him well never pegged him for being on the take in the manner of a Chicago alderman. If you read the press clips about Torricelli’s background, they portray an ambitious kid from a Democratic family who grew up listening to recordings of speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt. He went to the Kennedy School of Government, then worked for Walter Mondale in the White House before running for Congress himself in 1982. That just isn’t the profile of someone whose primary motivation is greed. If money’s what you’re after, you can find more of it, more easily and more legally, outside of government.

And that’s what makes the Torch’s flameout so disturbing. In all likelihood, Torricelli wasn’t corrupt when he came to Washington two decades ago. He was merely corruptible in the way many people are. But something about Washington seems to bring out the latent defects in someone like him. Without the temptations and opportunities that politics placed in his path, someone of Torricelli’s level of integrity could have led a sleaze-free life. The larger lesson of his pending demise, it seems to me, is that our system of political financing creates what Catholics call a “occasion of sin” for weak-willed politicians. The charges against Torricelli, if they are true, constitute a damning case not just against a single rotten egg but against whatever it is about Washington that is causing eggs to rot.

The essential problem is that congressional candidates now need to raise ungodly sums of money. The sums are huger in the Senate, and hugest of all in a few states like New Jersey, where statewide advertising is especially expensive. (You have to buy ads in both the New York and Philadelphia media markets.) In 1996, Torricelli spent more than $9 million dollars to win his seat. If you’re not wealthy yourself, the way Torricelli’s junior colleague Jon Corzine is, you can only raise that kind of money by spending all of your free time cultivating rich people–at their homes, on their private planes, on their yachts.

Many politicians resent having to grovel for campaign contributions. Others, like Torricelli, love rubbing elbows with the well-to-do. His skill at extracting millions from millionaires led to Torricelli’s role as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a job that entails full-time, intensive contact with even wealthier people. As chairman of the DSCC, Torricelli performed the extraordinary feat of surpassing the Republicans in raising senatorial soft money. He brought his party within a hair’s breadth of actually winning control of the upper chamber, though his departure would result in Republicans gaining back an actual majority–unless, that is, Strom Thurmond predeceases him.

It is perhaps a chicken-and-egg problem whether someone like Torricelli developed his appetite for the finer things in life by spending too much time raising money from rich people or whether he gravitated to fund raising because of his cravings. In a case like his, it’s probably best to say that there is a symbiotic relationship between temptation and venality. Torricelli is clearly someone who appreciates the accoutrements of affluence–the hand-tailored suits, the first-class travel, the fancy restaurants, the trophy girlfriends. At the same time, political fund raising taught him to covet those things by sending a constant message that other people, less deserving than he, had them in profusion. Licensing someone like Torricelli to go and raise a hundred million dollars from rich people is like putting a kid with a weight problem in charge of the bake sale. Passion for the product may make him good at the job. But a few brownies are liable to go unaccounted for.

For another example of this kind of head-turning, recall the case of Tony Coelho, the Democratic whip who made his party into a fund-raising power in the 1980s. Coelho, who was drawn into politics only after epilepsy prevented him from becoming a Catholic priest, was an even less likely self-server than Torricelli. According to Brooks Jackson’s Honest Graft, Coelho used the Robin Hood rationale for his heavy-duty fund raising: he was extracting money from the rich to help the poor.

Along the way, that somehow turned into extracting money from the rich in order to live like one of them. Coelho fell in a 1989 scandal that began with revelations about his use of yachts and planes belonging to S & L operators and ended with his resignation over an undisclosed $100,000 loan that he used to buy junk bonds from his friend Michael Milken. Coelho, whose goal had shifted decisively from power to money, wasted no time in quitting and finding a better outlet for his talents on Wall Street. But even wealth didn’t cure his predatory attitude toward public service. As U.S. commissioner general of the 1998 World Exposition in Lisbon, Coelho got in trouble again for billing the State Department for an $18,000 per month apartment and a chauffer-driven Mercedes.

When people say that our campaign-finance system is “corrupting,” what they usually mean is that politicians must raise money for their campaigns in ways that leave them beholden to big contributors. What the Torricelli scandal suggests is that the system is corrupting in an even more basic sense as well. The need for constant fund raising not only creates an unacceptable level of temptation, it changes the character of public servants, eroding their capacity to resist temptation. Shame on Bob Torricelli and all other politicians who succumb. But wouldn’t it be wiser not to test them this way in the first place?

Photograph of Robert Torricelli by Ho/Reuters.