Unless you’ve been living under a rock waiting for nice weather to appear, you’ve heard the news that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez has been indicted on 13 counts of corruption.
Basically, Menendez is accused of helping doctor Salomon Melgen contest Medicare charges, nab a port security contract in the Dominican Republic and even obtain a VISA for his mistress, all in exchange for gifts. But according to Menendez, there’s a perfectly good reason he threw all his help Melgen’s way – they’re friends.
“Everyone knows he and his family, and me and my family, have been real friends for more than two decades,” Menendez said in a statement. “We celebrate holidays together, have been there for family weddings and funerals, and have given each other birthday, holiday, and wedding presents — just as friends do.”
It’s time for me to find some new friends.
After all, prosecutors say the trips, vacations, dinners, golf outings and political donations from his “family friend” netted Menendez over $1 million and a picky attitude for the finer things. During a stay at the upscale Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, Menendez reportedly wrote Melgen requesting a king bed, a “limestone bath with soaking tub and enclosed rain shower.” Oh yeah, and he wanted a nice view, which ended up totaling $4,934.
Now, Menendez has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges and has boldly stated he’s “not going anywhere.” If Triumph the Comic Insult Dog would here, he’d say we may not know if he’s guilty, but we do know one thing: “He’s guilty.”
Of course, public corruption and bribery are nothing new for the “Soprano State” (as Asbury Park Press columnist Bob Ingle has dubbed New Jersey) but one thing I’ve found odd is the reaction Menendez is getting from his own party compared to his predecessor, former Sen. Robert Torricelli.
When it was revealed “The Torch” received illegal campaign contributions from David Chang, a businessman with connections to North Korea, Democrats were the ones to apply pressure and convince Torricelli to withdraw from seeking re-election and end his political career.
This time around, support for Menendez seems to be coming from all corners of the state. Sen. Cory Booker issued a statement supporting Menendez practically the same time the indictment was announced. Senate President Steve Sweeney, U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell, Bonnie Watson Coleman and Ablio Sires, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, even North Jersey power broker Joe DiVincenzo – all have publicly backed the embattled senator.
State Democratic chairman John Currie said (without the hint of irony) that Menendez “has told me personally that none of his actions were inappropriate or unlawful, and I truly believe him.”
State Senator Ray Lesniak, who called Chris Christie the state’s “Liar-in-Chief” and said the governor should be impeached if he knew about “Bridgegate” thinks when it comes to Menendez, “We must reserve judgment until all of the facts are known.”
So what gives? Two things: Timing and spinelessness.
Toricelli’s problems came just before re-election, leading to fears that Democrats could lose his highly-contested Senate seat. For Menendez, re-election is four years away, and if he decided to resign, Christie would no doubt pick a Republican to replace him (Sen. Tom Kean?).
In addition, Menendez is still a powerful figure who has proven adept at performing Matrix-like dodges of past allegations of corruption and inappropriate behavior. If you were a spineless Democrat (sadly the majority of the state’s political class) would you risk your political future on calling out what appears to be a case of embarrassingly-obvious political corruption?
If you were actually working on behalf of your constituents, yes. If you were playing “Trentontopia” and worried about losing the game, of course not.
It’s not as if the Republicans have been in a rush to admonish Menendez, either. Chris Christie has calmly said “everybody deserves the presumption of innocence” in response to the indictment. Is this the same guy who called for the resignations of then-Assemblyman Robert Schroeder, Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo, and Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, after they were indicted?
Even Republican firebrand Senator Ted Cruz of Texas defended Menendez, floating the idea he was being targeted by the Obama Administration over his criticism of the president’s actions on Cuba and Iran.
The game rolls on. It’s only been the so-called “liberal rags” like the Washington Post, The Star-Ledger, Asbury Park Press and the New York Times who have shown the guts to call on Menendez to resign.
Of course, Menendez has said he won’t step down during his trial, and even if Senate Democrats suddenly grew a spine, there is no rule requiring him to step down.
But he should. Obviously. He does a disservice to the taxpayers he purports to represent every single day he remains in office. Then again, we are talking about an indicted politician who used money he solicited from an indicted doctor to form a legal defense fund called the Fund to Uphold the Constitution.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe