Shortly after he became attorney general, John Ashcroft transferred the investigation of Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., from the Department of Justice to the office of Mary Jo White, U.S. ttorney for the southern district of New York. Why did Ashcroft transfer the investigation, and why did it go to New York and not to Torricelli's home state?
Conflict, conflict, who's got the conflict? In 1997, then-Attorney General Janet Reno began an investigation into political fund-raising irregularities committed during the 1996 campaign. Because abuses of campaign-finance laws have a five-year statute of limitations, most of the cases have been completed, except for the investigation of Torricelli. Ashcroft recused himself from the Torricelli case because Torricelli, as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, worked to defeat Ashcroft in his bid last year to win re-election to the Senate from Missouri. Even the head of Justice's Criminal Division, Michael Chertoff, couldn't take the matter because as an attorney he had worked on a case involving one of the chief witnesses against Torricelli. Ashcroft couldn't transfer the case to the U.S. attorney in New Jersey because the prosecutors there asked to be recused from the case. That conflict concerns the fact that a senator has approval over who gets appointed to be U.S. attorney from his or her state. So Ashcroft sent the case to neighboring New York, and the busy office of Clinton appointee Mary Jo White. Last week, Torricelli asked that the case be taken away from White and that the Justice Department appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation. This would have the advantage of having the statute of limitations expire on some of the possible charges against him. The department hasn't responded to the request, and no one really expects it to.
Explainer thanks reader Sam Williamson for suggesting the question.