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Hatch backs Demo in 3-year probe

The allegations against senator are false, he says

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch has often raised eyebrows by defending adversaries when they face crises — including Bill Clinton during impeachment, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., amid allegations of drunken bad behavior.

Now he's doing it again, this time backing liberal Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J. That support by a conservative Republican may give the embattled Torricelli some political cover back home as he faces re-election.

Hatch, R-Utah, is urging the Senate Ethics Committee to quickly dispose of a preliminary inquiry into allegations that Torricelli accepted unreported gifts, including an $8,100 watch, Italian suits and cash to help a donor with business deals.

Hatch is not a member of the Ethics Committee, but his support of Torricelli was reported this week on the front page this week of Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, after Hatch told it he feels allegations against Torricelli are unfounded.

Hatch told the Deseret News today, "I don't think any senator should have something like an official inquiry hanging over their head for three years, as he has."

Allegations against Torricelli were investigated for three years by the Justice Department. It recently announced a decision not to push a criminal case against Torricelli but said it was forwarding some documents to the Ethics Committee. That triggered an automatic preliminary inquiry by that committee.

"It's significant that the Justice Department found no criminal wrongdoing after long, careful investigation," Hatch said. "I don't think this should keep going on and on."

Hatch added, "I don't think he did anything wrong." Hatch said he had talked to Torricelli about it many times, "and I certainly believe him more than I believe (David) Chang," Torricelli's accuser.

Chang, a commodities broker, pleaded guilty to illegally funneling $53,700 to Torricelli's 1996 Senate race and obstructing a probe into it. Chang said he gave thousands of dollars of unreported gifts to Torricelli in exchange for help with business deals.

Hatch said he spoke out for Torricelli, in part, because he says too many probes in Washington are politically motivated. "It's certainly not pleasant when they play games with someone's personal life. . . . I have felt the sting of that myself."

Hatch endured a two-year investigation, from 1991 to 1993, in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal. That bank was closed for money laundering. Hatch had given speeches defending it that were written by BCCI lobbyists later convicted of bribery. Hatch had also suggested that the bank help a friend with a loan, although that loan was not granted.

Hatch was cleared of any wrongdoing, but said those were the worst two years of his life, and defending himself cost a quarter-million dollars. He said today that experience helps him empathize with others facing similar probes.

"Also, I like Sen. Torricelli. He was on my (Judiciary) committee when I was the chairman. I thought he was hard-working and is someone who is much more open-minded than most," Hatch said.

Hatch, of course, made headlines through the years when he was about the only Republican speaking up at all for Clinton before impeachment, and even called him with personal counseling and advice on how to put his life in order. (Hatch, however, later did vote to convict Clinton in his Senate trial).

Hatch also spoke up for Kennedy amid stories of out-of-control behavior — and offered him counseling, too.

Hatch said defending people in such circumstances even goes back to former Sen. Herman Talmadge, D-Ga., who was denounced by the Senate in 1980 for financial impropriety. "Not many of us spoke up for him back then," Hatch said.


E-MAIL: lee@desnews.com