As Donor/Pal Flies “Under the Radar,” Will Senator Menendez Mind His Words Or Eat Them?

February 22, 2013

A curious angle to the story about Senator Bob Menendez and his relationship to Dr. Salomon Melgen, his donor-benefactor-travel pal, has gotten obscured in the larger ethical churn.

Dr. Melgen is the ophthalmologist who donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Senator Menendez, and took Mr. Menendez on his private plane to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) for vacations in 2010 that the Senator did not disclose.

For his part, Menendez lobbied the U.S. government to get its support for a port security contract in the D.R. for the doctor’s company, and intervened on Melgen’s behalf by questioning a government audit that revealed overbilling in the doctor’s practice.

The Senator sent a reimbursement check for $58,500 to Melgen’s company after the unreported flights became public, which relieved Menendez of the responsibility to make a public disclosure about his trips with the eye doctor, and appears to have cost him an ‘arm and a leg’.

Now, Dr. Melgen, as was reported earlier this month, has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “block his plane’s flight activity from public view in air trafficking systems.”  He seems eager to cover the trail (or the contrail).

Stunningly, the FAA agreed and will allow Dr. Melgen to keep his flight records secret; this applies not only to future flights, but also to on-line access to historical records.

In “Doctor now flying under the radar,” Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, has posted a detailed piece about Dr. Melgen, the FAA’s powers of disclosure and authority to keep records secret, and why its decision to shield records Melgen’s flights raises issues around accountability and transparency, and possibly the Menendez investigation itself.

As Mr. Eaton writes:

“In January, before the flight activity was blocked, the Associated Press reported that Melgen’s plane had made more than 100 trips to the Dominican Republic and about a dozen flights included brief stopovers in the Washington area.”

Is there anyone in the Congress who might think Melgen’s request was a little fishy?  Or, that the FAA’s decision is antithetical to the idea of good and open government?

How about Senator Bob Menendez, a champion of disclosure?

  • In 2010, he took credit for writing provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which toughened regulation after the economic crisis, to increase transparency in the trading of the financial instrument called derivatives.
  • In 2011, he organized a letter cosigned by nine Senate colleagues to the Department of Transportation demanding that airlines disclose their fees.
  • That same year, he sponsored legislation with a section to require disclosure by companies for certain business activities with Iran.
  • In 2012, he sponsored legislation to require corporations to disclose their campaign donations to shareholders, following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
  • As a candidate for reelection in 2012, Menendez released five years of his tax returns, as a spokesman explained, in the full spirit of transparency.
  • Only a few weeks ago, when Senator Menendez traveled to Afghanistan, he told President Karzai that the U.S. expects elections in his country next year to be fair, free, and (you guessed it) transparent.

Senator Menendez even told a constituent a few years back that he’d consider supporting legislation to protect coastal New Jersey’s fish population, because he believed in transparency in the management of fisheries.

Isn’t the Senator’s next step, well, transparently obvious?

He could do nothing; eat his words on disclosure and transparency.  Or, he could write the FAA and demand that the shield concealing Dr. Melgen’s flight records be removed.  Nothing could be more consistent with what Senator Menendez has said – and wanted others to do – in the last three years alone.

Besides, what else could he have to hide?

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Fidel’s 86th Birthday; U.S. and Cuba in the Present

August 10, 2012

On Monday, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86.  For decades, every milestone he celebrated and every difficulty he encountered was an intense source of interest in the United States.  When illness forced his retirement from office, U.S. officials gave him only a couple of months to live and some in Miami planned a party to celebrate his demise.  Six years later, even as the aging former president has largely faded from view, U.S. policy remains stubbornly Castro-centric.

The conversation in Cuba has changed enormously since Fidel Castro stepped down as president and was replaced by his brother Raúl.  Read the news items that follow:  they are debating how fast and how effectively Cuba is reforming its economy, what are the bottlenecks to expanding non-state jobs, how can Cuba support its aging population as it searches for an economic model that works.  These are ideas worth discussing, and some represent developments worth supporting.

Despite welcome but modest reforms, in areas like travel for Cuban Americans and people-to-people exchanges, President Obama has kept the essential architecture of U.S. policy in place.  The goal remains using diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to force the Castros from power and to cause Cuba’s economy to fail.  We cannot even directly discuss the human rights or political problems that divide us, because it’s our policy not to sit down and talk to Cuba.

For Fidel Castro, having both countries bound together in antagonism suited his outlook just fine. Six years into his retirement, we find it odd that U.S. policy continues to dance on a string he no longer even holds. On his 86th birthday, that is quite a testament to his longevity.   What it says about U.S. policy is something else indeed.

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