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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This post will self-destruct in ten seconds. Good luck, readers.

January 18, 2013

In the 1960s, many of us in the U.S. never missed an episode of Mission Impossible, the weekly Cold War-era television drama, in which a top secret group of operatives were entrusted with undercover missions that put their lives at risk.  Their instructions were always accompanied by a message reminding them of the government’s plausible deniability:

As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

In recent legal filings, the United States government and Development Alternatives Inc. – the customer and client operating the “democracy promotion” activities that led to Alan Gross being locked up in Cuba – appealed in a federal court to dismiss the $60 million lawsuit filed against them by Mr. Gross and his wife Judy.

The merits of the lawsuit do not matter, the government says; it is immune and can’t be held accountable for the injuries to Mr. Gross and his family, because they arise from his imprisonment in Cuba and there’s a “foreign country exception” under the Federal Torts Claim Act.

They may be right about the law, but what a Catch-22!  The program was designed to send people like Mr. Gross to a foreign country, Cuba, and engage in activities that put them at risk.  It also begs the question whether the legislators who wrote, funded, and obstinately insisted that its operations continue, as well as those in the State Department and USAID, ignored the risks since there was no legal recourse available to someone who got caught in Cuba doing what they sent him to do.

In connection with the court filings, new documents are now available – including a confidential memo from a 2008 USAID meeting as well as a written report by Alan Gross – that provide new details and greater clarity about the regime change program operated by USAID.

The documents – analyzed here by Tracey Eaton – also undermine the State Department’s cover story, repeated as recently as December 3, 2012, that “He was there in Cuba as an aid worker working with the Jewish diaspora community there, helping them to better communicate through the internet to the outside world.”

Instead, the documents make clear that the project was an “operational activity,” run at the end of the Bush administration, which had already put together five to seven transition plans for Cuba.  The administration was seeking “immediate results” from the program designed to spark reactions by change agents in Cuba who were being given access to highly sensitive, high technology equipment.

Secrecy was at the heart of the project, starting with communications coming from Washington.  In the USAID memo, under a section marked “response to public inquiry,” there is a bold-faced note: “Nothing anywhere.  We must not post anything on our website or issue a press release on the awarded contract.” The memo says that “Official and contract communications demands (sic) careful wordmanship and crafty use of terms.  No reference whatsoever to the new media component.”

Stealth was particularly important for the operations in Cuba.  In September 2009, Mr. Gross reported that his activities were already supporting direct communications between “target communities” and the U.S.  At the same time, he was monitoring Cuban users of the equipment to see what websites they were accessing.  High technology equipment was brought in to make the activities more secure, but these also made the operation more dangerous.  He writes, “Discovery of BGAN usage for Internet access would be catastrophic.”

USAID admitted that “building this network is risky because of the security threats.”  It called for “creativity” in implementing the project “in the face of opposition from the Cuban state – one anchored in the past and resistant to change – while protecting the security of participants and change agents.”

His work was called a “pilot project.”  Mr. Gross was planning four more roundtrips to Cuba – and budgeted for more roundtrips to bring in more equipment –to expand the program in 2010.  But, then his plans changed.  His security was not protected.  He was arrested, convicted, and sentenced under Cuban law for activities the U.S. government and his employer knew in advance were risky, subject to detection, and illegal.  With the actions taken to dismiss the case, it appears that the Obama administration and DAI are washing their hands of him and leaving his fate entirely in the hands of Cuba’s government.

This is just fine with Senator Robert Menendez, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who fought to maximize spending under the “regime change” programs and who has already told the New York Times, “I’m not into negotiating for someone who is clearly a hostage of the Cuban regime.”

Small wonder that Judy Gross told R.M. Schneiderman of Foreign Affairs late last year, “I feel betrayed by the United States.”   Her government has disavowed responsibility for her husband’s actions and plight.

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