FBI Heard Torricelli on Fla. Wiretap
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ FBI agents monitoring a Florida pizzeria for possible organized crime activity recorded Sen. Robert Torricelli on a wiretap discussing fund-raising with supporters, including relatives of a prominent Chicago crime figure.
The 1996 intercept, weeks before Torricelli was elected to the Senate, surprised the FBI agents and they alerted the Justice Department. Prosecutors reviewed the tape and concluded there was no reason for further investigation, law enforcement officials said.
The call received new scrutiny two years later when allegations surfaced of thousands of dollars in illegal straw donations to Torricelli’s campaign, the officials told The Associated Press, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
Several people have been questioned about the intercept and whether Torricelli or his staff ever encouraged them to disguise donations in the names of others, according to the officials and witnesses.
The New Jersey Democrat has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. This week he said that when he hears about allegations against him, ``I have to smile to myself, knowing in the end the truth is going to come out.″
The operators of the Sarasota, Fla., bakery and pizza shop where the call was intercepted in early September 1996 eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the government of taxes.
In the intercept, three supporters from Chicago, who were visiting the bakery, called and left a message for Torricelli in New Jersey, and the lawmaker returned the call. They discussed the need for donations to fuel his Senate bid down the stretch, according to law enforcement officials, who have listened to the tape or seen its transcript.
At one point, Torricelli made a comment suggesting he needed individual donations, which by law are limited to $1,000. ``Each individual check,″ the soon-to-be senator said, according to officials.
One of the supporters indicated he had raised or planned to donate a few thousand dollars. They also discussed the Chicago area being a potentially good area for a Democrat like Torricelli to raise money, according to the officials.
A source close to the FBI said Friday that authorities have zeroed in on the specific exchange in asking witnesses whether Torricelli ever encouraged donors to disguise cash as small donation checks.
``They (prosecutors) did mention Senator Torricelli. I don’t know exactly what I said. I did contribute to his campaign,″ said Francis Roti, one of the Chicago businessmen recorded on the wiretap.
``They asked, do you know if there was anything. I don’t remember the term they used, but it was about money. And I said I was not involved with that,″ he said.
Roti and his son, Sam, were recorded on the tape talking to Torricelli. They are nephews of Fred Roti, a colorful Chicago alderman whose association with organized crime resulted in his imprisonment in the 1990s for racketeering and extortion.
Sam Roti, a Chicago developer, helped raise money for Torricelli in Illinois, and he and his father donated a total of $1,500 to the New Jersey Democrat.
Sam Roti was indicted on tax charges in 1993 related to an investigation of federal housing grants, but the charges were dropped.
``We donated some to Bob,″ Sam Roti said. ``We don’t have anything to do with New Jersey and there’s no affiliation at all. It was just nice to see an Italian guy. That’s all it was.″
A source close to Torricelli said the senator was notified he had been coincidentally intercepted on the wiretap and that his lawyers ``inquired and were told there were absolutely no issues involving the senator, including the campaign contributions issue.″
Sam Roti said the discussion of money during the intercept was supposed to be lighthearted. ``We were in a bakery that my dad had become friendly with _ the guy that runs it _ because he was Italian,″ he said.
``My dad gets on the phone and starts joking around about there being money here or something. I don’t remember exactly what was said. It was one of my dad’s offhanded jokes.″
Federal Election Commission records show Torricelli’s campaign received more than $30,000 in donations in September and October 1996 from donors in the Chicago area.
Guy Ackermann, a Chicago accountant, said he wrote Torricelli a check for $500 around that time as a favor to a friend who knew Sam Roti. Ackermann said he attended a wine-and-cheese reception that Roti held for Torricelli.
Seven people have pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to Torricelli’s 1996 campaign. The FBI also is looking into whether supporters gave Torricelli improper personal gifts.
Nicholas Castronuovo, who operates the Sarasota pizza and bakery shop, recalled talking briefly to Torricelli on the phone in September 1996. ``We exchanged salutations,″ he said.
Castronuovo said he used to be involved in local New Jersey politics before moving to Florida and ``I know Bob.″ He said one of the Chicago businessmen decided to call the lawmaker.
``He called from here. And when he called, Bob was not in. We left a message that ‘when you come in, call your old friend’ and he (Torricelli) called here,″ Castronuovo said.
Castronuovo’s lawyer, Thomas Ostrander, said his client’s pizza shop was being monitored in 1996 because the FBI thought it was ``being visited by big organized crime figures.″
Castronuovo, a grandson and a third man involved with the bakery pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiracy to defraud the government on taxes. Castronuovo was sentenced to 24 months probation, his grandson was sentenced to four months in prison and both were ordered to pay back taxes and cooperate with federal investigators.