For more than four years, US Sen. Robert Torricelli (D) has been the subject of a corruption probe - and for most of this time his fellow Democrats have not exactly rushed to his defense.
Now, however, some are beginning to question the way the Torricelli investigation is proceeding. While they're not defending the New Jersey senator himself, a few are beginning to raise the spectre of political motive - trying to infer that leaks to the press about the probe may be compromising justice.
Democrats' sudden interest stems from the fact that control of the US Senate could turn on whether Mr. Torricelli is indicted - and whether he might resign from office if he is. If such an event were to unfold in the next 12 months, Republicans would resume power in the Senate.
The federal probe into the 1996 campaign activities and financial affairs of Torricelli was launched during the Clinton administration. It started as an old-style corruption investigation - including allegations that Rolex watches, expensive suits, a big-screen TV, and cash had been exchanged for official favors.
After Attorney General John Ashcroft left the Senate to head the Justice Department, he recused himself from the investigation (on the grounds that he had served with Torricelli). He handed the matter over to US Attorney Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee based in New York.
But then Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont changed from a Republican to an Independent - and the political calculus of the Torricelli case was altered. If Torricelli left office before November, a GOP governor would name his replacement.
That's a prospect many Democrats noticed. Last week, some of the heaviest hitters in the Democratic Party weighed in on this investigation.
First to pick up on the changing political context were Torricelli's lawyers, who fired off a letter to the attorney general, calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor from outside the Justice Department. "The public needs to know that Senator Torricelli will not be charged with crimes in order to change the balance of power in the Senate," wrote Theodore Wells, a Torricelli lawyer. Appointment of a special prosecutor could add years to the probe, taking some of the allegations beyond the five-year statute of limitations, experts say.
On Friday, the Justice Department rejected that suggestion.
Now, prominent Senate Democrats are chiming in, saying they are concerned, in particular, about leaks in the press about the Torricelli probe.
Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California expressed "dismay" over press reports that an indictment against Senator Torricelli was expected "soon" - apparently based on information leaked from government sources. They called on Mr. Ashcroft to stop the leaks and identify those responsible for them. "Such disclosure can undermine basic principles of our criminal-justice system, such as the presumption of innocence, by irreparably damaging the reputation of persons who have not been charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime," they wrote in a June 14 letter.
"We've got to stop leaking across the board because it makes professional agencies look like political campaigns," Senator Feinstein added last week.
The possibility exists that the Senate itself could get involved in the case. "Senator Leahy hasn't ruled in or out the prospect of the Senate investigating," says David Carle, a spokesman for Mr. Leahy, now chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
But identifying who is leaking information from a grand-jury investigation is seldom easy. Some have suggested harsher penalties for officials who leak such information, but experts say that may not solve the problem.
"There are a lot of people who can be the source of leaks, and it's very difficult to effectively isolate who is leaking," says Julie O'Sullivan, a law professor at Georgetown University Law School here and a former assistant US attorney. "The likelihood of being caught is so small that it's very difficult to detect."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor