Robert Menendez recently won reelection to the United States Senate and has been named as Chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. My first “encounter” with Menendez was a rather reasoned letter I wrote to him during the Obamacare debate. Recognizing the need for health care reform, I noted that the ACA went way overboard and stressed restraint when talking about 16% of the American economy. I also stressed that instead of insuring people first, their primary goal should be lowering the cost of existing premiums before moving in other areas. About three weeks later, I received a letter from his office that basically requested a campaign contribution. I unfortunately still receive e-mails from him. Incidentally, it was a form letter. As a point of juxtaposition, I also wrote a letter to Lindsey Graham. He responded that although it was not his policy to respond to non-constituents, he did nevertheless. He also signed the letter…with real ink (I know, I smeared it to make sure; a test Menendez failed).
By now, every reader should be aware of his alleged ethical transgressions the worst of which may be his patronization of underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic. By underage, they were allegedly 16 at the time. If this was done in the United States, Menendez (if guilty) would be branded a pedophile and likely have to register as a sex offender. The problem is that prostitution at the age of 16 is legal in the Dominican Republic. The problem for Menendez is that although legal in that country, it is illegal for a United States resident to travel abroad to seek or have sex with anyone under the age of 18. There is nothing like a great sex scandal to bring down a powerful United States Senator. When a Republican senator was caught playing footsies in an airport restroom, the liberal press was ecstatic about the hypocrisy of right wing politicians. Every time those on the religious right are caught in some sex scandal, the press portrays this as the status quo. Here is the problem for Menendez: a few years ago, he stood on the Senate floor and announced his pride in co-sponsoring legislation to eradicate and punish human trafficking in the sex trade, especially with regards to underage women. He stated: “It is easy to forget that each of these numbers represents a person, a daughter, a sister, a mother…who is suffering.” He was dismayed to see that of the 14 worst offender countries, five were Latin American, including the Dominican Republic.
But leaving aside these sexual allegations, Mr. Menendez is no stranger to investigations and ethical lapses. Before discussing them, however, a point needs to be made here. New Jersey is known for its corruption. We are, after all, the supposed “Soprano state.” It is true that the mafia, such that it exists today, is still very active in the state and that political corruption is rampant, especially in the urban areas like Newark, Hoboken and Camden. Unfortunately, too many residents of New Jersey just see it as New Jersey as usual. Even more unfortunate, if these allegations against Menendez are correct, then I can almost guarantee a circling of the wagons around Menendez, especially in his home base area of Union among the large Cuban community there. He will be portrayed as a martyr being attacked by crazy right wing loons and their GOP allies. That is the reality of the New Jersey mentality when it comes to corruption. Maybe the citizenry is just desensitized given its prevalence, but at the end of the day it perpetuates a bad image. Say what you will about Chris Christie, but his administration has been corruption-free, unlike his predecessor, Jon Corzine. Of course, before that we had Jim McGreevey who it is rumored use state police escorts to guard him on his trips to rest stops on the Garden State Parkway for homosexual trysts.
One of the first investigations of Menendez came at the hands of then federal prosecutor Chris Christie. Supposedly, Christie found himself on a DOJ hit list of potential terminations during the Alberto Gonzalez prosecutor “scandal.” Although he eventually resigned, in my opinion at the time, this was much ado about nothing. Federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the President and it is common for them to be replaced when the president is reelected. Perhaps the timing- two years after Bush’s reelection- was aberrant, but the number fired paled in comparison to those under the Reagan and Clinton second administrations. Nevertheless, in 2006, apparently after being informed of his name on this list, Christie launched an investigation into Menendez’ relationship with the North Hudson Community Action Corporation, a non-profit health and human services organization serving the poor in northern New Jersey. He apparently rented an office to the organization while federal funds were being steered to them also which would create a conflict of interest. No charges were ever filed, but neither was the investigation necessarily dropped after Christie left office in his bid for becoming Governor. When Obama entered office, Christie’s replacement was suggested by Menendez and became prosecutor whereby Menendez then pressed him to end the investigation. To his credit, it was given to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for final disposition since the prosecutor was suggested by the focus of that investigation. One can certainly say that the timing of the Christie-launched investigation should raise some eyebrows. Menendez at the time was running for a full six-year term to the Senate in 2006, Christie is on this hit list, Christie launches investigation, Christie taken off hit list, etc.
Leaving aside the connections to Christie, Menendez claims he rented this office space to the non-profit at below market prices because he agreed with their work. Certainly, the owner of real estate can rent office space for whatever cost they want. But, when that renter is receiving federal aid that you, as a Senator and real estate owner vote upon, then it should raise some red flags. Regardless, it enriched Menendez some $300,000 in rental receipts. Menendez, as your typical big government, anti-business liberal Democrat, also has no compunctions about writing letters to the head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, asking that they acquire the distressed First Bank Americano and save it from collapse. Here, the regulators were aghast that a Senator would cross such a line especially in light of the fact that the FDIC chastened that bank for bad practices. It should also be noted that eight of the 15 members of the bank’s Board of Directors were campaign contributors to Menendez or his leadership PAC.
There is also the case of Benedetto Bigica who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in circumventing election campaign laws and funneling $21,400 in illegal contributions to Menendez’ leadership PAC. Although no one with his PAC or office were charged in that investigation, that seems to be the modus operandi of his ethical lapses. In the current controversy, only after these prostitute allegations came to light and his association with this Dr. Melgen in Florida, did Menendez report and reimburse Melgen for a $58,500 trip aboard his private plane to the Dominican Republic. Either Menendez had a huge oversight of the law, or he simply, Jersey-style, flaunted it and then reimbursed Melgen after the fact with the ever-present apology. And just recently, it was discovered that there was an unpaid intern on his campaign staff who was an illegal immigrant who overstayed their visa and a convicted sex offender to boot. Speaking of political use of the Justice Department, a charge often thrown about by Menendez in response to the 2006 Christie investigation, they and HHS were apparently not to move on this fact until after the 2012 senatorial election. In fact, the illegal immigrant was arrested on December 6, 2012 outside his home although it was known prior to the election that this person was here illegally.
The fact is that Menendez has obviously fallen trap to what so many have succumbed to in New Jersey. Once they obtain political power, they push the boundaries in this “It is business as usual in the Garden State” mentality that tarnishes the reputation of the state. Today, despite protestations to the contrary, Menendez is known as the Boss of Hudson County. It really makes no difference whether the “boss” is a cigar-chomping Democratic power broker, a Gambino crime family figure head, or the son of Cuban immigrants who climbed up the rungs of political power. With each passing day as this controversy will not now go away, more revelations are coming to light. Did Menendez have undue influence on a port security deal in the Dominican Republic that would have financially benefited this Dr. Melgen? Did the fact that he stayed at a resort owned by Dominican sugar barons influence his vote on sugar price supports? Most egregiously, did he seek out sex with 16 and 17-year-old prostitutes in the Dominican Republic, or will he wiggle out of this with a “Is that what they were?” mentality? I understand fully that corruption and hypocrisy is not necessarily unique to New Jersey. I grew up near a town where corruption was the norm and still is, the subject of a popular HBO television show. But what makes New Jersey oddly and sadly unique is the general acceptance of this. This is a state that will send someone like Menendez to the Senate even if he were convicted of anything before the election of 2012.
This story of the Menendez rise to power is typical of political corruption as usual in New Jersey. Menendez likes to pad his resume as a corruption-fighting reformer in his native Union, New Jersey. The mayor at the time was William Musto who had taken Menendez under his wing. Musto was also a state senator while simultaneously being mayor (you can actually do that in Jersey). Anyway, the FBI began investigating Musto and Menendez became a prosecution witness. He likes to portray himself as some knight in shining armor having to wear, literally, bullet proof armor to the trial out of fear for his life. Mainly based on his testimony, Musto was found guilty. In typical New Jersey fashion, Musto won reelection as mayor on the day he was sentenced having defeated, ironically, Robert Menendez. That is big city New Jersey politics in a nutshell.
P.S.- Sarcasm is intended in the title of this entry.