Torricelli Sat on $3M as Democrats Sank

Posted February 4, 2003 at 6:32pm

Rebuffing pleas from his colleagues for financial help, former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) banked more than $2.9 million in his campaign account on Dec. 31.

After dropping his re-election bid in the face of mounting evidence that an ethics scandal had made it all but impossible for him to win another term, Torricelli used campaign funds to clear up $1.6 million in legal debt but offered less than $20,000 to Senate Democratic causes in the final weeks of the 2002 cycle.

After he abandoned his campaign, saying he “could not stand the pain if any failing on my part” led to a GOP Senate majority in the 108th Congress, Torricelli decided against making any substantial donations from his own campaign account to Democratic committees or candidates. In the process, he lost much of the luster he held among colleagues and party strategists who once greatly admired the New Jersey Democrat’s political prowess in fundraising, according to numerous Democratic strategists, aides and lobbyists.

A source who remains close to Torricelli said that more payouts in legal bills brought the account down to about $2.7 million by the end of January. Once he is finished dispensing with a few small remaining legal bills, Torricelli is expected to transfer the remaining funds to a political action committee, from which he will be able to dole out $5,000 checks per election to federal candidates.

“It’s a question of mechanics before he does that,” the source said.

While he couldn’t legally spend the money on himself, Torricelli could have given it to charity or stored it away for a possible political comeback. He could also have handed out large chunks of it to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or various state party committees, the path that party leaders most desperately urged Torricelli to follow in the final weeks of the midterm campaign.

The day Torricelli pulled out of his re-election bid, Sept. 30, his campaign reported holding $5.1 million in its war chest, a bounty that New Jersey Democrats initially hoped would be steered their way so they could help the fledgling campaign of his replacement candidate, then-former Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

It quickly became clear, however, that Torricelli had no interest in helping Lautenberg, who publicly feuded with Torricelli in the four years they served together in the chamber. Personally wealthy, Lautenberg pumped $1.5 million of his own money into the race and raised an equal amount from donors. Within weeks of his entry it was clear Lautenberg

didn’t need any additional help, having pulled comfortably ahead of political novice Doug Forrester (R) in the race.

But national Democrats were still hoping Torricelli would steer the bulk of his reserves to boost their chances in other key races.

According to several Democratic strategists, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.), Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) were among those asking Torricelli for help in critical contests.

“I never talked to him personally, but I knew others were asking him,” said Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), who chaired the DSCC in the 2002 cycle.

Torricelli declined those entreaties for help before the Nov. 5 elections. Prior to the midterms, the only contribution to a Congressional candidate was $1,000 to Democrat Timothy Carden, who gained just 41 percent of the vote against Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.).

According to new campaign disclosure reports, he also gave less than $25,000 to a handful of county and local Democratic groups in New Jersey on the eve of the elections. Over a six-week period in October and November he gave the New Jersey Democratic State Committee three contributions totalling $53,344. That money, the source close to the former Senator said, helped cover federal hard-money costs for the state party’s coordinated campaign account, which had been just about drained in covering the $800,000 costs to reprint ballots because of Torricelli’s late withdrawal from the race.

Torricelli’s defenders note that the coordinated campaign fund for New Jersey Democrats was fueled by money raised almost entirely by the Senator, and it held about $350,000 after paying for the new ballots, money that went toward the statewide Democratic effort on Nov. 5. They also said he raised about $5 million on his own for the DSCC, which he chaired in the previous cycle, money that party officials were free to steer to New Jersey or any other race.

He also covered more than $65,000 in payments to Genova, Burns & Vernoia, the New Jersey firm that successfully argued the legal battle that allowed him to be replaced on the ballot.

Torricelli, who could not be reached for comment, refunded $34,000 in contributions last quarter and ended with no debt.

His defenders also point out that Senators themselves were not aggressively pleading with Torricelli and that the most desperate entreaties were made on the staff level. “There was no hard sell going on from any of his colleagues,” a Torricelli defender argued.

One Senator who did put on a fairly hard sell was Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who had been forced into an early December runoff after she failed to claim a majority on Election Day. “I know I spoke to Bob and I asked for his help,” Landrieu said.

On Nov. 19, Torricelli wrote a $1,000 check to her campaign account, and gave $10,000 to the Louisiana Democratic Party. He gave Landrieu’s state party another $5,000 on Dec. 3.

Those $16,000 in contributions were the only dollars from his campaign account to directly benefit any Senate candidate outside of New Jersey.

Over the last three months of 2002, Torricelli for U.S. Senate Inc. took in $12,670 in interest and investment income.

Murray declined to take Torricelli to task for the decision. “I respect every Member’s own judgement,” she said. “It’s not like he didn’t help out at all.”

And, like other party officials, she stressed that Democrats had devoted plenty of money to each of the key races.

For much of the inside-the-Beltway Democratic community, however, there is still a sense of deep embitterment toward Torricelli’s decision to hoard so much cash.

A pair of retired Senate Republicans took large sums of leftover campaign funds into the political afterlife, but nowhere near as much as Torricelli, and each did so after making large six-figure donations to GOP causes. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) reported close to $380,000 left in his campaign account on Dec. 31, but GOP officials noted that he gave $100,000 from his war chest to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the final months of the campaign. Like Torricelli will eventually do, former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) has opened a federal PAC with the $1.1 million left over from his campaign. In the final weeks leading up to the midterms, Gramm was dumping cash to candidates throughout the country, including $300,000 to the NRSC and $300,000 to the campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

One top strategist agreed that there was no direct begging or pleading from Daschle, but that some party activists were left with a “level of disgust” toward what they considered a selfish act by Torricelli, who had previously spent most of his Senate career at the DSCC building a Democratic majority.

Some strategists and lobbyists have complained about the need for Torricelli to maintain such a large PAC. If he were to give $10,000 — the maximum — to the top 70 Congressional races each cycle, it would take more than three elections to empty his PAC’s coffers, not accounting for interest and investment income it receives in the future.

Some were taken aback by Torricelli’s excuse in declining colleagues’ requests for money, which he sometimes said he couldn’t meet because of his outstanding legal bills.

Sources close to the matter said that within days of his withdrawal, Torricelli had requested and received his final billing invoices from the two firms that did the most work during his three-year battle with federal investigators, federal prosecutors and ultimately the Senate Ethics Committee.

On Oct. 15 — three weeks before Election Day — Torricelli made what will likely be the last of his payments to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, for more than $1.2 million. Ten days later he made what was also likely to be his final payment to Perkins Coie, a total of $220,000. Between campaign funds and a legal defense fund, those two firms have collected a combined total of $3.2 million for work done on Torricelli’s behalf since mid-1999.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Senate Democrats deputized Reid as the point man in seeking to pry more funds from Torricelli’s campaign account. “He was sort of tasked as the one person who might be able to shake that money loose,” a Democratic aide said.

Reid and Torricelli had known each other since they came into Congress together as House freshmen in 1983, serving together on the House International Relations Committee for four years. In the spring of 2001, Reid was the first Congressional Democrat to make a contribution to Torricelli’s legal defense fund, giving $500 from his leadership PAC.

After some watchdog groups complained of a conflict of interest, Reid stepped aside in January 2002 from the Ethics Committee’s investigation of Torricelli and was replaced as chairman by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Eight months later, the committee issued its “severe admonishment” of Torricelli and his campaign went into a free fall.

While he never came up with big dollars for the DSCC or other Democratic Party committees, a handful of top campaign staffers did receive substantial bonuses, which were referred to as “commitment fees” on the fundraising report.

On Oct. 3 Ken Snyder, the campaign manager, received a $50,000 bonus and $49,000 in salary.

Torricelli’s top fundraiser and former wife, Susan Holloway Torricelli, received a $25,000 commitment fee. She also received another $12,000 in fundraising consulting fees after the campaign closed down.