In public, Senator Bob Menendez is never a shy skeptic about certain kinds of travel.
He bitterly opposed reforms in 2009, to allow Cuban Americans unfettered travel rights to Cuba, and later teamed up with Senator Marco Rubio to oppose opening up people-to-people travel for most other Americans. Early in the Obama presidency, Menendez, an environmentalist who believes in climate change, held up the nominations of John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, world class scientists, to block a Senate bill with language to liberalize travel to Cuba (something his Hurricane Sandy-battered constituents probably never heard about).
When the Center for Democracy in the Americas was organizing a Cuba trip for Senate chiefs of staff, he and Senator Bill Nelson warned all of their colleagues not to allow their staffs to go (nobody listened). At John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, he scolded Senator Jeff Flake, who joked about using “spring break” to disrupt the Cuban government’s hold on the island.
Like other hardliners, Senator Menendez even suggested that travel to Cuba was about little more than sexual tourism, as he did in this speech against Cuban American family travel four years ago.
Had Senator Menendez heeded his publicly expressed doubts about travel in private, he might not be in the hot water he finds himself today. His story has moved swiftly from a lurid set of accusations – which the Senator denies, which some independent journalists and ethics watchdogs doubt, and at least one late night comic has mocked – to issues involving a friend and donor, Dr. Salomon Melgen, that have ensnared him in investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate Ethics Committee.
These developments are serious, as Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote, because his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “makes him the top diplomat on Capitol Hill, someone tasked with greeting heads of state visiting Washington, and affords him the kind of public profile that prompts regular appearances on the Sunday morning political talk shows.”
Questions about his relationship with Dr. Melgen –described as “a high-profile Palm Beach ophthalmologist with major tax problems” –captured media attention this week when the FBI conducted a surprise raid on the doctor’s offices.
According to NBC News, the raid ostensibly “concerned a separate criminal probe conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which typically investigates Medicare fraud. However, agents were also looking for evidence in the other case concerning the alleged under-aged prostitutes” and two airplane rides Menendez and Melgen took to the Dominican Republic.
The trips were never paid for by Senator Menendez or accounted for as gifts, as required under the rules of the Senate, an oversight which his staff attributed to “sloppy paperwork.” But, it’s more than that. “It’s technically a federal crime to not report gifts on a federal financial-disclosure form,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility, to the Miami Herald.
Mr. Menendez has dug deep into his pockets and sent a check to Dr. Melgen’s company for $58,500 to clean up the error. This could not have been easy for Mr. Menendez, who was ranked 79th among his Senate colleagues in wealth by the Center for Responsive Politics after reporting net assets of under $500,000 in 2010, according to the Washington Post. By taking this route, rather than invoking what is called a “friendship exemption” and amending his filings with the Senate Ethics Committee, to clean up the error, he has avoided any requirements to make a public disclosure of details about the trips. Surely, commercial flights would have been cheaper.
The payment will not make the attention go away. On Thursday, The New York Times reported on how Senator Menendez used his office and position to fight for a contract to help a company in which Dr. Melgen was an investor. That company “had a long-dormant contract with the Dominican Republic to provide port security and x-ray cargo. Mr. Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds sway over the Dominican Republic, subsequently urged officials in the State and Commerce Departments to intervene so the contract would be enforced, at an estimated value of $500 million.”
The Times reports that Menendez spoke to State Department officials about the contract, and used a hearing he chaired last July to question State and Commerce Department officials about why they weren’t being more aggressive in getting the DR to honor the contract, even though his friend lacked border security experience.
According to the Miami Herald, Menendez’s office said the senator did nothing improper, he was a long-time champion for U.S. business abroad, and that “Senator Menendez has over the last few years advocated for more attention to the spread of narco-trafficking throughout Central America and the Caribbean.”
In light of Dr. Melgen’s political contributions to Menendez and others –more than $426,000 in campaign donations since 1992 – news organizations and investigators are likely to examine whether he crossed the line from business advocacy into the land of the quid pro quo.
Beyond dealing with a federal investigation, Senator Menendez is also facing a Senate Ethics inquiry. Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the committee, told the Washington Post yesterday, “The Senate Ethics Committee is aware of the article in the Miami Herald and other media outlets, and we are following established procedures.”
The Department of Justice will neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. As a long-time public servant told the Cuba Central News Blast, if the Senator was just an average Joe with a security clearance, that clearance would be suspended – and his access to classified information stopped –until the matters were satisfactorily resolved, one way or the other. That’s not happening to Mr. Menendez, yet.
What is happening instead is quite telling. At the White House, for example, Jay Carney, the press secretary, “declined to answer when asked whether the president still has full faith and confidence in Menendez. ‘I don’t have anything for you on that,’ Carney told reporters.” Asked about the scandal, Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader, praised his colleague as “an outstanding senator,” and then encouraged reporters to call his office. “Any questions in this regard, direct to him. I don’t know anything about it.” Allies like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who celebrated Menendez as “a proven leader and defender of human rights when he became chairman,” have said nothing at all.
Rather than dodging the press in New Jersey, as Mr. Menendez appears to be doing, perhaps he should be taking to heart in private what he said in public at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing:
“Yours is a big chair to fill, and I will do my best today to live up to your example. I have watched you lead the Committee with an equally deep and abiding commitment to getting to the heart of the matter — always probative, always open to debate, but always ready to mitigate disagreements, always looking for the truth — for answers – uncovering the facts, hearing all the evidence, and then publically speaking truth to power based solely on what was best for this nation.”
Unless he lives up to that standard, the Senator could put his power and new position at risk.
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