This was supposed to be a banner week for New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat, who was reelected to a second term in November, became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — a relatively meteoric rise considering it took his predecessor, John Kerry, 24 years to work his way up to the gavel. Instead of celebrating, Menendez has spent the week alternately ducking the press and angrily lashing out at “nameless, faceless” accusers. The heart of his problem is his relationship with one of his top donors, Salomon Melgen, a 58-year-old eye surgeon who moved to Florida from the Dominican Republic in 1980.
The relationship between a politician and his top donor is often a tricky one. Melgen and his family have given Menendez, and groups working to help elect Menendez, more than $750,000 in the last two election cycles. It’s easy to paint a picture of favoritism and patronage — and to a certain degree that’s expected: donors aren’t giving all that money expecting nothing in return. It’s when that relationship crosses the line that it gets dangerous. And Menendez has admitted to crossing at least one Senate ethics line with Melgen thus far: he neglected to reimburse Melgen for two trips on his private jet to the Dominican Republic in 2010, an “oversight” that Menendez rectified last week. But after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Melgen’s Florida practice this week, other questions have surfaced. Though Menendez has distanced himself from Melgen, the Senate Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into several of their ties.
The charges against Melgen, who has proclaimed his innocence, are serious. He’s being investigated for more than $8 million in Medicare fraud for claiming up to four times the usual worth of a vial of eye medication. Melgen has paid that money back to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid but is looking to reclaim it as he says that he abided by the guidelines. Still, a CMS agent participated in the FBI raid last week, so clearly there are Medicare issues that remain unresolved. Menendez twice in 2009 and 2012 called CMS about Melgen’s case, though Menendez’s office says he was expressing concerns that CMS guidelines were not clear and led to misunderstandings – not lobbying or pressuring the agency on Melgen’s behalf.
Meanwhile, Menendez encouraged Melgen to partner with a former staffer of his, Pedro Pablo Permuy, to buy into a U.S. security company that held a contract to screen cargo coming in from Dominican ports, according to the New York Times. Some business interests have questioned the contract, worth $500 million, in part because of Melgen’s lack of port security experience. In his capacity at the time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Menendez pushed the Dominican government to honor the contract and enforce the deal.
Menendez has admitted to taking several trips to Melgen’s home in the Dominican Republic, often on Melgen’s jet. It came out last week that Menendez did not reimburse Melgen for two of those flights, as required under Senate rules, and Menendez rectified the “oversight,” reimbursing Melgen $58,000 for the flights – a hefty sum for someone who’s net worth in 2011 was between $267,000 and $580,000, according to Senate financial disclosure forms.
Adding salt to Menendez’s wounds, he’s also had to face some embarrassing press. A story in the Miami Herald detailed how Melgen often bragged about his cozy relationship with Menendez and used the senator’s name to threaten rivals with IRS audits and Medicare investigations (ironically, Melgen himself was not only under investigation for Medicare fraud but records show he owes the IRS $10 million in back taxes).
Is this the end of Bob Menendez’s political career? So far, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is standing behind him and he has not been named the target of any investigations. If he hasn’t broken any laws the only thing he really need worry about are the voters in New Jersey – a state not exactly known for its puritanical ethical standards. In the meantime, as long as the investigation into Melgen drags out, Menendez better grow thicker skin. There’s already a Twitter feed entitled “MenendezMustGo” mocking him. And, as Helio Rodriguez-Ecay of Miami snarkily wrote in a Miami Herald letter to the editor, “Menendez has [the] perfect job title.” “I think he should stay,” said Rodriguez-Ecay. “Just because his title could not be more descriptive: Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.”