Friday, May 19, 2006

Ex-Senator May Have Ties To Oil-For-Food

Robert Torricelli, a former Democratic senator from New Jersey, is being investigated by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, based on allegations made by the United Nations' Independent Inquiry Committee, about his possible involvement in the oil-for-food scandal.

The investigation into Mr. Torricelli was first reported by The Financial Times. The newspaper reported that in the 1990's, Mr. Torricelli met several times with Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Nizar Hamdoun. At those meetings, according to the newspaper, Mr. Torricelli, a Democrat who was then a House member, allegedly urged Iraq to help a campaign donor, David Chang, and Mr. Chang's company, Bright & Bright Corporation, get oil-for-food contracts.

In 2002, the Senate Ethics Committee "severely admonished" Mr. Torricelli for accepting improper gifts from Mr. Chang, and the senator decided not to seek re-election. Two years earlier, Mr. Chang pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and funneling $53,700 in illegal donations to Mr. Torricelli's 1996 Senate campaign.

A Torricelli spokesman, Sean Jackson, confirmed that Mr. Torricelli had conversations with the Iraq ambassador, but said the purpose was to argue that relations between the United States and Iraq would improve if American companies participated in the oil-for-food program.

Ah, yes, "the Torch": Now, there's one colorful character whom I would have been glad never to have heard of--or from--again. Alas, 'tis not to be. (No longer living in the Mid-Atlantic section of the East Coast, I don't have to pay much attention any more to New Jersey politics, in which I understand Mr. Torricelli is still involved.)

The Financial Times provides many more details:

The first meeting between Mr Torricelli and Mr Hamdoun took place on March 10 1996, when, according to an Iraqi document that has been described to the FT, Mr Torricelli reportedly suggested that he was willing to play an active role in improving US-Iraq communications.

The two talked about Resolution 986, which was going to set the rules of the oil-for-food programme. Mr Torricelli said a number of US companies would be interested in doing business with Baghdad, and specifically mentioned Mr Chang.

According to the same Iraqi document, Mr Torricelli met Mr Hamdoun again two days later. At that meeting, Mr Torricelli said that since their previous conversation he had spoken with Edward Gnehm, the deputy US representative to the UN, who was leading negotiations with Iraq about the oil-for-food programme.

On June 22, according to the same document, Mr Torricelli allegedly met Mr Hamdoun again. Mr Torricelli told him he had heard that the Iraqis might not give US companies any contracts and advised him that this would be a mistake. Mr Torricelli told Mr Hamdoun that he expected to win a US Senate seat in the November election (as he later did), and said that Bright and Bright was important to him and his election campaign and that he hoped that the company would receive contracts from Iraq.

According to the Iraqi document, Bright and Bright initially asked for 60 per cent of Iraq’s oil contracts and a discount of $1.50 a barrel. Then on June 11 1996, a Bright and Bright executive wrote to Mr Hamdoun asking for government contracts worth as much as $300m in the first 90 days of the oil-for-food programme. In return, he said Bright and Bright would continue to support the normalisation of relations between the US and Iraq.

According to FT, no "concrete deals" resulted for Bright and Bright, but still, doesn't this just reek? As does the whole, gigantic oil-for-food mess.